The Robin Thicke Verdict Is Wrong

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Justice is pretty hard to come by these days. The people who tanked the economy got off scot-free, as did the people who lied us into a devastating war. Cops are killing civilians and not even being charged, much less convicted. Beck won Album of the Year over Beyoncé. So it’s nice to see one of history’s worst douchebags publicly humiliated in a court decision that may very well end his career.

Yesterday a Los Angeles jury found Robin Thicke and his credited “Blurred Lines” cowriter, Pharrell Williams, guilty of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up,” and awarded Gaye’s heirs $7.3 million in damages.

I am 100% in favor of Robin Thicke suffering for his crimes, which include (but are by no means limited to) publicly cheating on a wife most men would kill for, writing startlingly rapey lyrics, singing into a gold microphone, wearing a Beetlejuice suit in public, wearing aviator sunglasses indoors, and taking half of the credit for a song he now admits Pharrell wrote by himself.

Unfortunately, those crimes do not in my opinion include plagiarizing Marvin Gaye.

I wrote about this case back when it first began, so forgive me if some of this is repetitive, but this jury made a terrible decision and it sets an awful precedent for future cases like this. Worse, it pretty much guaranteed there will be more cases like this, because now there’s blood in the water.

I grant that “Blurred Lines” sounds a lot like “Got To Give It Up,” and I grant that it was not an accident. But over the course of this plagiarism trial, the jury was specifically instructed to compare the two songs solely as compositions, which is to say, as they would appear on sheet music. All the similarities between the two are production choices: falsetto singing, lots of cowbell, bass mixed way up. Strictly as compositions — if you were to play the notes that make up “Got To Give It Up” and then the notes to “Blurred Lines” on the same piano — the two are not even close. The notes are different, the chord changes are different, the beat is different, the lyrics are different.

Let me be clear: I love Marvin Gaye in general and “Got To Give It Up” in particular. It’s a much better song than “Blurred Lines” and it clearly inspired Thicke and Williams — they’ve admitted as much. But there is a distinct difference between imitating a vibe and outright copying a song.

Recently Sam Smith was forced to admit that his recent hit “Stay With Me” lifted the melody of Tom Petty’s 1989 smash “I Won’t Back Down,” and settled out of court with Petty’s publishing company. In this case, the suit was justified: If you played the melody of Smith’s “Stay with me, cause you’re all I need” refrain and Petty’s “No I won’t back down, no I won’t back down,” you would be playing the same notes at the same tempo. That’s plagiarism. But even in this obvious, open and shut case, Petty and cowriter Jeff Lynne were awarded 12.5% of Smith’s royalties on the song, because apart from the melody of the hook, the songs are very different. “Blurred Lines” has earned $16 million in royalties, and Thicke and Williams were ordered to pay nearly half that amount in damages, which would be more than a little excessive even if the compositions were similar, which they are not.

Right now Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have one of the biggest hits on the radio with “Uptown Funk,” and most every critic to write about the song has pointed out its spiritual debt to “The Minneapolis Sound,” which is shorthand for stuff Prince, Morris Day and the Time, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did in the ‘80s. I noticed the same thing the first time I heard the song: the combination of horns and synthesizers on the main riff sounds just like The Time. I haven’t heard anyone argue that Ronson and Mars plagiarized Prince — whenever the similarity is mentioned it’s framed as a “tribute.” But what’s the substantive difference between what Ronson did and what Thicke did, other than the fact that Ronson hasn’t spent the last two years making an ass of himself? In the wake of this ruling Prince could easily sue Ronson and Mars, and he might even win, but it would be total bullshit, just as it is with Thicke and Williams and the Marvin Gaye estate.

(A word on the Marvin Gaye estate: in the wake of the ruling, Gaye’s daughter Nona Gaye told reporters through tears, “Right now, I feel free. Free from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told.” What a total crock of shit. ‘Robin Thicke’s chains?’ Robin Thicke didn’t delete “Got To Give It Up” from the public record. He did not take any food off the Gayes’ table. He released a song that sounded like another song. No one impugned her father’s character, no one said Thicke’s song was better than Gaye’s, so it’s hard to imagine what she could be crying about, other than tears of joy that she can continue to live off of her father’s royalties.)

There is no indication on the public record that Robin Thicke is anything but a total asshole. During the course of the trial, he even seemed to try to squirm out of being held liable by announcing in court that he was so out of it on booze and painkillers that he barely remembers the sessions and that Williams wrote the song without his help. Even though I think the case is bullshit, that is an incredibly sleazy move. It also didn’t help that when the Gaye camp started making noise about a possible lawsuit, Thicke et al sought a pre-emptive ruling that they hadn’t plagiarized the song, which most people misinterpreted as “suing the Gayes,” which makes no sense at all but still makes them look like douchebags with guilty consciences. Then add to that the fact that Thicke’s success immediately went to his head in the worst, most cliched way imaginable, with the gold mic and the sunglasses and the stepping out on his wife, and it’s very easy to indulge in the schadenfreude of watching this asshole go down.

I want to see him go down too. On the basis on his conduct over the last two years, that seems very likely. No one is going to want to work with him, no one is going to want to ghostwrite any more #1 hits for him, and no one is going to buy his records. But this decision is bad and sets a bad precedent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Robin Thicke is a douche, not a plagiarist.

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