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The blurred line between creative risk and musical rip-off

The song “Blurred Lines” was one of the biggest hits of 2013, but a jury has decided that some of that success is thanks to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” Gaye’s children were awarded $7.3 million after they sued the songwriters for liberally lifting from the 1977 song. Gwen Ifill talks to Kory Grow of Rolling Stone about how the decision could affect the music industry.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We turn now to a legal decision that's resonating loudly in the music business. When is a borrowed beat, or melody, or syncopation simple theft, and when is it artistic creativity?

    In the case of the monster 2013 hit "Blurred Lines," a jury has ruled that songwriters lifted liberally from a Marvin Gaye classic. Listen and see what you hear.

    (MUSIC)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The first song, written and performed by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, was, of course, "Blurred Lines." The second was Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up."

    Gaye's children claimed the rhythm and background elements of their father's song were plagiarized. The jury agreed that Thicke and Williams infringed on the copyright, and awarded the family $7.3 million.

    But the ripple effect could add up to much more.

    Kory Grow covered the case for Rolling Stone. And he joins us now.

    Kory, the music industry has responded almost uniformly that they believe this will create a chilling effect on creativity. Why is that?

    KORY GROW, "Rolling Stone": The reaction that a lot of people have been giving has been that people might be afraid to try to emulate a sound or try to emulate a feeling, or they feel that maybe, you know, if they stumble on a — the song, or if they're just being creative, that it might be hearkening back to something else.

    It's kind of a system of checks and balances, I guess, that they think that this set a precedent for.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How is what happened here different from what we hear all the time, sampling little bits and pieces of snatches of songs that show up in other places? How is this different?

  • KORY GROW:

    Well, sampling specifically is when you're taking a piece of recorded music and using it, with the blatant — sampling is when you take a piece of music and you're using it and you're saying that you're using it.

    What they're saying here is that they purposely took elements of "Got to Give It Up," as you said, the baseline, maybe some of the chord changes, and used those for their song, without giving it any credit.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I heard an interesting thing, that the jury didn't actually hear what we just heard. They had to…

  • KORY GROW:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    … make this decision based on sheet music?

  • KORY GROW:

    Right. It was based on sheet music. And then they also were able to hear versions of "Got to Give It Up" that contained the protected elements of the song.

    Because "Got to Give It Up" was filed before 1978, the only parts of it that were covered were the elements of the sheet music. So it would be stuff that a piano could play, you know, the bass part, the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythm. But it wouldn't have the cow bell or the party sounds or the kind of atmosphere that you would hear in the recorded version.

    But they were able to hear the recorded version of "Blurred Lines."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Right. Even without hearing what it actually — the original sounded like, they were able to make that decision.

    But how is this different from other cases? For instance, we read recently about Sam Smith, the new breakout British stark settling out of court with Tom Petty over his song "Stand By Me," basically, admitting that, yes, he was inspired by the other song.

  • KORY GROW:

    I think that's a different case, in the sense that Sam Smith just — like you're saying, that they settled, that they didn't take it there.

    This is an interesting case with "Blurred Lines" because, even after the verdict came in, Robin Thicke and Pharrell said, this is a genuine, unique, creative, you know, statement, that it wasn't at all borrowed at all from "Got to Give It Up," in their opinion, and they're standing by that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Of course, I said "Stand By Me," but the song was "Stay With Me," a big, big difference there.

    What is the difference between paying homage to an earlier songwriter and theft?

  • KORY GROW:

    It's — you know, not to make a joke, but there is a pretty fine line.

    And it's something that they had to prove by showing that the bass lines and that certain parts of the song were similar. And it's also one of things where you have got to wonder if a jury understands or can read sheet music. But it was presented in a way that they ruled the way that they ruled.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So what happens now? What does this decision mean for what happens every time you hear this song played in the future? Do the Gaye children now get a piece of this?

  • KORY GROW:

    They will, as long — there's going to be a — there's going to be a court back-and-forth still.

    The lawyers for Robin Thicke and for Pharrell are going to examine their options. And there are still a few more steps they would need to take before they got to a court of appeals. But there will definitely be back-and-forth between them. The lawyer for Marvin Gaye's family told me that he was going to try to get an injunction, so that the song couldn't be sold until they came to an agreement over money and until they're making sure that they are getting paid.

    So it kind of depends on the way that goes. But it is sort of a murky area. But I'm sure, being the music industry, they will find — they will find a way to go forward. But, yes, the Gayes, I would imagine, the way, the way — with this verdict holding, the Gayes would be getting a portion of "Blurred Lines."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What happens now with that song every time it plays? Do lawyers have to get involved at the front end, instead of the back end?

  • KORY GROW:

    I hope not. I believe that people should be able to create compositions that they feel are unique. I think that it's possible that lawyers might be reviewing things, but I think it's also a very hard thing to prove.

    But I think that, right now, artists should just feel the right to be creative and see where it takes them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kory Grow of Rolling Stone, thank you very much.

  • KORY GROW:

    Thank you.

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