We Asked a Lawyer if the "Blurred Lines" Lawsuit Will Ruin Music Production

"People need to chill out."

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Complex Original

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According to Marvin Gaye's estate and a federal jury, Robin Thicke's 2013 pop smash "Blurred Lines," produced by Pharrell Williams, is a rip-off of Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up." Given the tremendous commercial success of "Blurred Lines," that federal jury has awarded Gaye's estate $7.3 million in damages, to be paid out by Thicke and Williams. While the song has generated nearly $17 million in revenue for the several musicians and record labels involved, Thicke and Williams themselves have reportedly made about $5 million each off of the song. 

Damages aside, this jury verdict has got many musicians and critics wondering whether the gist of the Gaye estate's claim—that "Blurred Lines" appropriates the general "feel" of "Got to Give It Up"—is a new, unprecedented threat to music producers. Today we spoke to former music industry attorney Reggie Ossé, a.k.a. Combat Jack, who worked for 13 years with hip-hop artists and producers, about the "Blurred Lines" case, its key claims, and its potential impact on hip-hop production and commercial music in general.

Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.

In the course of this record’s production, legally, where did Pharrell and Robin Thicke go wrong?

In situations like this, you have to be smart. If there’s any question that a new song might infringe upon a copyright, you’re definitely responsible for reaching out to the copyright owner and trying to work something out. Usually people balk because, with James Brown’s estate or the Jackson estate, or Marvin Gaye’s estate, they have a reputation of being heavy-handed in what they want up front. But nine times out of 10, heavy-handed is a pittance compared to what you might have to pay if you go about it all wrong.

I don’t know the full facts of this case. I’m looking at this from the outside, and it’s very obvious that elements of Marvin Gaye’s work were incorporated into “Blurred Lines.” Regardless of whether Pharrell says he was “inspired” by a “feeling,” he was definitely inspired or motivated by “Got to Give It Up.” It’s obvious. And if there’s any question, even if you feel like, “Hey, I didn’t sample it,” he pretty much replayed it. 

I don’t know specifically what Pharrell’s deal was with the label, but 99.9 percent of the time, the responsibility lies with the producer. Labels have so many different departments, and one thing that you’ll find is that the creative department is way on the other side of the building from the legal department—but I’m surprised no one from the label said, “Hey, this sounds like Marvin Gaye, you might want to send this to legal.” But it’s hard to coordinate all of that. The A&R guy, and the guys that are getting the record done, they’re not thinking about the legality. They’re thinking about a hit record.

OK. So Pharrell and Robin made this record, and it’s clearly influenced by “Got to Give It Up,” and...

Way more than influenced.

Not that we have the contracts in front of us, but this is on Pharrell (the producer), right?

Ninety-nine percent of the time that would be the case, but we have to remember that Pharrell is a superproducer. In instances like this, superproducers have the leverage to negotiate that the onus would be on the label and the artist. But otherwise, in most cases, the onus would be on the producer, yes, and—unsurprisingly—the very last person left holding the bag would be the record label. They don’t want to deal with that shit. They don’t want to be liable for the fuckups of the producers and the artists.

If Pharrell and Robin had simply cleared the record with Gaye’s estate up front, would they have just been paying a huge sum of money then rather than now? What would it have cost them to handle all of this before they dropped the record?

Typically, $5,000-$10,000 up front. I’ve heard somewhere that Gaye’s estate was charging $60,000, which is definitely heavy-handed. If so, that’s fucked what they were charging, but compare that to the end result here. $60,000 is still a pittance.

I think what confuses a lot of people about this case—it confuses me, certainly—is that the most famous hip-hop examples of infringement are typically about unauthorized sampling. “Blurred Lines” is creatively indebted to “Got to Give It Up,” sure, but Pharrell didn’t jack directly from the song. So even recognizing the similarities between the songs, does the verdict surprise you?

No. Here’s where it gets a little complicated, in terms of the meat and bones of music publishing. When you hear a record and you want to sample that, the record company owns that original record. For you to duplicate that record, you have to pay the record company. But the music that is on that record—“music” being the actual composition—is owned by the publisher. Usually when you’re clearing a sample, you have to pay two parties: the record company and the publisher.

In many instances, a producer might want to keep their budget low, so they don’t want to pay the record company, so they’ll replay the song (with their own musicians and equipment) and just have to pay the publisher. Understand?

That makes sense.

I think some people are confused. “Blurred Lines” didn’t use the “Got to Give It Up” record, so the record company isn’t getting paid, but we’re not talking about the record company. We’re talking about the publisher. And like I said, when you play “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” back-to-back, they’re damn near the same record. If that’s a coincidence, it’s a hell of a coincidence. I’m not saying that Pharrell went into this with ill intent, but this is a hell of a coincidence.

I’m reading lots of critics and musicians, including Keith Murray, saying that this sets “a dangerous precedent,” suggesting that now musicians can get sued not just for copying music, but for copying “the feel” of a particular song. Does the verdict really set any precedent that wasn’t already there?

I disagree. When you listen to “Blurred Lines,” it’s not just a similar feel. Some of Justin Timberlake’s records—produced by the Neptunes, incidentally—have a Michael Jackson feel. Meaning: These aren’t Michael Jackson songs that already exist; they would be perfect songs for Michael Jackson, but Justin Timberlake just happens to be on them. That’s a feel.

When I hear a record that sounds like another record, that’s not a feel, that’s a record that already existed. You do a record that sounds like you jacked another record, you’re gonna have to pay for that shit.

But you don’t think this verdict means that now Justin Timberlake is gonna have to watch his back for the Jackson estate?

No, I don’t think so. He might have to be like, “Yo, bruh, Pharrell, for real, where’d you get this track from?” I don’t think it’s gonna open up the floodgates. People need to chill out. Just be happy that the estate got something. It just means that if you’re a creator, you’re gonna continue to get paid for the work that you made. If you think this is gonna hurt creativity in some way, you gotta question your level of creativity.

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