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Gaye estate goes legal over ‘Blurred Lines’ copycat claims, accuses EMI of misconduct

By | Published on Thursday 31 October 2013

Robin Thicke

Oh now, this is getting interesting. The family of Marvin Gaye have finally gone properly legal in their dispute over Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, and while their countersuit contains the usual gubbins you might expect in a “your song sounds way too similar to mine” lawsuit, it’s the allegations thrown in the direction of the EMI publishing company (now controlled by Sony/ATV of course) that make the most interesting reading.

As previously reported, allegations that Thicke’s controversial hit borrowed from Gaye’s hit ‘Got To Give It Up’ (and from Funkadelic’s ‘Sexy Ways’) started circulating over the summer. Thicke, his collaborators on the track Pharrell Williams and TI, and their respective business partners all denied the allegations, and – spotting problems ahead – seized the initiative and sued the Gaye estate (and Funkadelic label Bridgeport Music) seeking court clarification that the copycat claims were invalid.

While the influence of Gaye and Funkadelic’s music maybe obvious in ‘Blurred Lines’, Thicke and Williams claimed, there was no actual plagiarism. Said the lawsuit: “There are no similarities between the plaintiffs’ composition and those the claimants allege they own, other than commonplace musical elements. The plaintiffs created a hit and did it without copying anyone else’s composition”.

The Gaye family’s countersuit does not concur. Their legal papers say that Thicke’s rape anthem contained “blatant copying of a constellation of distinctive and significant compositional elements of Marvin Gaye’s classic number one song”. Lined-up as evidence are the opinions of one of those musicologists always employed in cases like this, and various reviews that noted the similarities between the two songs.

Oh, and the time Thicke told GQ magazine: “Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favourite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove’. Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it”.

So far so standard. These cases rarely get to court, but if it does, then the old debate of when imitation becomes infringement can be instigated once again (times two, as the Gaye family also alleges another Thicke track nicks from Marvin’s oeuvre). But much more interesting are the allegations fired at EMI Music Publishing.

Although Thicke is allied to Universal for publishing, Williams works with EMI on the copyrights in his songs, and therefore it has a controlling interest in ‘Blurred Lines’. EMI is also employed by the Gaye family to administrate the rights in ‘Got To Give It Up’. And, says the lawsuit, EMI has very much sided with Williams on this dispute, in doing so breaching its legal, contractual and ethical obligations to the Gaye estate.

Not only should EMI have spotted and acted on the issues with ‘Blurred Lines’ from the start, the lawsuit alleges, but since the problems were raised by the estate execs at the publisher have done all they can to persuade and intimidate the Gaye family, and their legal reps, into dropping their claims against the hit.

According to Billboard, the suit claims that the Chairman of the EMI publisher personally contacted the Gaye estate’s attorney and accused the family of “ruining an incredible song” and “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”.

He also allegedly said that he believed the dispute had stopped Thicke from winning a VMA gong, and that it could likewise prevent him from taking the Grammy Award for Song Of The Year in 2014 (because without the Gaye dispute, the singer is a shoe-in for that honour of course, given how much the Grammys love to celebrate mediocre misogynistic crooners who have shown particular talents in promoting violence towards women).

Laying it on thick, appropriately perhaps, the lawsuit then says that EMI’s alleged failings are all the more worrying because of Sony/ATV/EMI’s dominance in the music publishing sector. Says the suit: “The EMI defendants control approximately 30% of the music publishing market throughout the world. Accordingly, there is a strong likelihood that conflicts of interest, such as the one in the present case, will arise again between the EMI defendants and the Gaye family”.

It goes on: “Based upon the blatant and egregious breach of the EMI defendants’ fiduciary duty and their covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the EMI defendants have proven that they cannot be trusted to remain neutral and impartial, and that they are unworthy of the level of trust and professional conduct which is required of a copyright administrator charged with protecting the Gaye Family’s important interests in copyrighted works created by Marvin Gaye”.

The family want out of their EMI contract and damages aplenty for the alleged infringement and the publisher’s alleged misconduct. Unless there’s a speedy closed doors settlement, this one could be very interesting.

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