Blurred Lines in More Ways Than One – Part III

As mentioned in Part II, I didn’t expect to write several posts about this litigation, but it turns out that “Blurred Lines” (Williams v. Gaye) raises several copyright issues—doctrinal, cultural, and historical—worthy of consideration and not easily condensed into a single article. In the first post, I alluded to an editorial written in 2015 by scholars Lateef Mtima and Sean O’Connor supporting the outcome in Williams from a historical perspective, asserting that traditional means of registering works and identifying infringement disfavored artists of color.

Citing this OpEd drew some criticism from a few readers, particularly musicians, who noted that people of color comprised two-thirds of the authors of “Blurred Lines” and that the Mtima/O’Connor opinion seems to be a matter of looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, comparable to often-overwrought and ahistorical complaints about “cultural appropriation.” But discussions about cultural cross-pollination in art are largely separate from the issues these scholars are raising about copyright law. Still, for context, we must  acknowledge that a vast amount of American popular music in the 20th century—jazz, blues, rock, funk, soul, R&B, rap, etc.—is more deeply rooted in African-American traditions than Euro-American traditions.

The amicus brief Mtima and O’Connor wrote with colleague Steven D. Jamar was submitted to the Ninth Circuit in 2016 on behalf of the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice. It argues for affirming the jury’s verdict in Williams, concurring in part and dissenting in part with regard to the evidence admitted at trial. Although the jury arrived at the opinion favored by the brief’s authors, the reasons why Gaye’s sound recording was not admitted as evidence points to the fact that “Got To Give It Up” is among thousands of musical works that happen to fall within an abstruse window in copyright history that, the authors argue, especially disfavored artists of color. For concision I’ll refer to the amicus brief as the IPSJ Brief, which states …

“For reasons not fully known and not linked to any further change in the statute, at some point (in the 1930s we believe) the Copyright Office began requiring written notation deposits, before again allowing deposits of phonorecordings for musical compositions beginning in the 1980s, and again not linked to statutory changes.”

Like many artists who did not receive formal training, least of all in European staff notation, Marvin Gaye composed by getting the music that was inside him to come out through the instruments and the players and then record the finished sounds in the studio. Many composers—regardless of race or culture—work this way today, of course, and their sound recordings are both valid for copyright registration and as evidence in a prospective infringement litigation.

But Gaye’s 1977 hit was subject to the 1909 Copyright Act, and it predated the apparently inscrutable shift in USCO policy that finally allowed sound recordings as registration deposit copies in the 1980s. Although the IPSJ Brief cannot fully explain a rationale for the fifty-year period when only written-notation scores were accepted for deposit (e.g. the statute did not mandate this), the brief’s authors do allude to lingering, judicial ambiguity stemming from White-Smith v. Apollo, which held in 1908 that piano rolls were not copies of compositions because they were not readable by humans.

Had that ruling gone the other way, it might have set a precedent for accepting sound recordings as deposit copies much earlier in the 20th century. And although SCOTUS held that sound recordings are, constitutionally, “writings” in Goldstein v. California in 1973, there is apparently no clear explanation as to why the Copyright Office did not amend its deposit requirements for musical works for nearly another decade.

As a matter of social justice, and in the service of demanding that copyright must empower the broadest diversity of authors, the IPSJ Brief asserts that the seemingly arbitrary emphasis on written notation between the 1930s and the 1980s was especially harmful to artists of color, who composed almost exclusively in aural traditions. Certainly, it is hard to miss the fact that this period encompasses the span of time when certain styles of black music sneaked into the mainstream via white artists beginning in the 1950s and slowly gained wider acceptance as black music by black artists through the 1960s and 70s.

Partly because written-notation scores were required as registration deposit copies, composers like Gaye relied on other parties to transpose their sound recordings into musical notation. This practice led to two recurring problems, according to the IPSJ Brief: 1) the scores did not always adequately represent the compositions; and 2) unscrupulous managers, label owners, et al sometimes exploited the opportunity to falsely assert co-authorship of the compositions. The brief states …

“The Copyright Office should have accepted phonorecordings as registration deposits throughout the entire period in which the 1909 Act was in effect. Neither Gaye nor other composers should today be penalized by restricting evidence of their compositions to a stripped-down lead sheet deposit created to comply with an extra-statutory administrative practice, especially where that deposit does not match the work composed by the author in the studio.”

In the “Blurred Lines” case, the jury was not allowed to compare the two sound recordings but was allowed to consider the “lead sheets” and expert testimony by musicologists. As the IPSJ Brief explains, lead sheets are somewhat rudimentary versions of musical scores that are generally of use only to professional musicians, who can interpolate what’s not on the page and play the song (by ear or from memory) the way the composer meant for it to be played. To get an idea of the difference, I’ll borrow a reference cited in the Brief and direct you to the musicnotes.com page for “Got To Give It Up,” where you can play a computer’s interpretation of the score and decide how much those lifeless and literal beeps and bloops sound like the Marvin Gaye song you know.

The IPSJ Brief asserts that only the sound recording correctly represents the originality (ergo the protectable aspects) in Marvin Gaye’s composition—and that the same is true for thousands of compositions made by artists, who worked in aural traditions rather than standard notation during the roughly half-century at issue. Thus, the brief’s authors support the evidence presented by the Gayes’ musicologists, asserting that these experts correctly identified the protectable elements in the work, giving the jury fact-based reason to find infringement. Nevertheless, the authors remain critical of the fact that the sound recording of “Got To Give It Up” was not admitted into evidence.

The IPSJ Brief also argues that the outcome in Williams does not, as many fear, “copyright musical style.” To the contrary, the authors assert that the lines separating “style” (idea) from “originality” (expression) have instead been too often drawn incorrectly due to bias tilting toward certain musical traditions. In practical terms, this means that a composer like Gaye can arrange a dozen unprotectable ideas in a manner that is uniquely expressive, and this can only be analyzed in context to his studio-based process rather than on paper alone.

Whether or not one agrees with this analysis—or with the jury in Williams—Mtima, O’Connor, and Jamar offer an intriguing discussion about copyright history and practice during one of the most prolific, experimental, and culture-shattering periods in Western music. As much as it would be absurd to overlook American musicians of color between the 1930s and 1980s, it seems likewise inappropriate to ignore this aspect of the “Blurred Lines” case rather than to view it in tandem with the subjects of infringement doctrine, case law, and circuit court splits that this litigation has inspired other scholars to address.

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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2 comments

  • Marvin Gaye was strictly raised by his father, a minister, and learned piano as a child. He knew exactly what chords and notes that he and everyone else were playing. No one can sing the “Blurred Lines” melody over the “Got To Give It Up” track, or even just the chords, or vice versa….. it’s simply not stealing. They should have sued Thicke for “Million Dollar Baby” which is almost note for note Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”. Now that is stealing.

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks for the comment, Steve. As alluded to earlier, were I on the jury, I think I’d lean toward skeptical that “Blurred Lines” actually infringes. Nevertheless, I felt the points being made in this brief were both interesting and worthy of consideration for the reasons stated in the post. Above all, I thought it was worth trying to summarize what the brief’s authors are saying about the law as distinct from the concept of “cultural appropriation.”

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