They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Unfortunately, imitation—or rather artistic inspiration—has landed R&B singer Robin Thicke and super-producer Pharrell Williams in quite the legal brouhaha.

Since August 2013, there’s been an ongoing legal battle over the similarities between Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Over a year ago—amidst allegations of copyright infringement—Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford “T.I.” Harris commenced a lawsuit against the Gaye family seeking declaratory relief.  Citing numerous interviews in which Thicke admitted that Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit single had inspired him to write “Blurred Lines,” the Gaye family filed a countersuit.

The lines of this copyright infringement case became even blurrier last week when the Gaye family filed for summary judgment.  As evidence of how “substantially similar” Thicke’s work was to that of Marvin Gaye, the counterclaimants included an audio mash-up of the songs in their summary judgment materials. Deposition statements have also been recently released indicating that Thicke is now claiming to have had little to do with creating the controversial song.

Whether the court will decide Thicke and William’s 21st century take on Marvin Gaye’s classic was flattery, inspiration, or just plain theft remains unclear.  In deciding copyright infringement, the Ninth Circuit has typically applied the “Inverse Ratio” and the “Substantially Similar” tests. The Inverse Ratio rule states that if there’s a high degree of access to the protected work, a finding of infringement may be based upon a lesser degree of similarity. As it pertains to this case, interviews in which Thicke admitted that “Got to Give It Up” was one of his favorite songs and the inspiration for the song could be used to demonstrate a high degree of access to the work.

In determining whether the works are in fact “substantially similar,” the court will likely employ the “Extrinsic/Intrinsic Test” set forth by Cavalier v. Random House, 297 F.3d 815, 824 (9th Cir.2002). The Extrinsic/Intrinsic Test asks an expert or more typically the judge to first apply extrinsic, objective factors to determine whether two musical works contain similar ideas and modes of expression. If the extrinsic test determines the works to be substantially similar, summary judgment cannot be granted and the case must be brought before a jury of laypersons to subjectively determine whether the two works are substantially similar.

With a jury trial scheduled for February 2015, it will likely be a long road before it is decided whether the artist’s creative inspiration is safe from the snares and traps of copyright law; however, regardless of the outcome, this case will just be another example of the blurred lines and unclear laws surrounding digital sampling, inspiration, and copyright infringement.

— Alneada Biggers

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