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Blurred Lines plagiarism: Was it really plagiarism?

Despite the verdict against Blurred Lines, some musicians do not think Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams ripped off Marvin Gaye's song

The inmates are running the asylum.

That has been the tune sung by music critics, industry insiders and musicians after last week's ruling that singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had stolen ideas from Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up in their 2013 hit, Blurred Lines.

A jury in Los Angeles awarded US$7.3 million (S$10.2 million) to Gaye's family, some of it coming from profits earned by Blurred Lines, with the rest for damages.

The sum is, no pun intended, record-breaking and could mark a change in how such disputes are settled in the future. Previously, most of these cases have been settled in private, for undisclosed amounts.

If there has been an air of gentleman's agreement about the hush-hush manner in which pop music plagiarism troubles are dealt with, it is not without good reason, say those in the music industry.

Protracted legal proceedings damage the psychological well-being of plaintiffs, afflicting them with creativity-hampering self-doubt. Former Beatle George Harrsion said he was too "paranoid" to write for a time after he was successfully sued for infringement because his 1970 hit My Sweet Lord was deemed to similar too The Chiffons' 1963 single He's So Fine.

More importantly, the experts argue that laymen are not equipped to handle notions of genre, chord changes, groove and feeling.

All rhythm-and-blues recordings, including the two tunes at the centre of the dispute, share traits in common. But songs can still be different, despite similarities in percussion, bassline and groove, say some professionals.

On Williams and Thicke's side are musicians including legendary songwriter Stevie Wonder and percussionist Jack Ashford. Ashford contributed to Gaye's recording of Got To Give It up.

In an interview with a Memphis news channel, he says that Thicke song is "just a party record and I don't think you can copyright a groove... I wouldn't call it a rip-off".

Looking closer at the issue, the ruling seems to have its roots in the quirks of the American legal system. In many ways, the Blurred Lines case echoes what is happening in the technology industry in the United States, one of a few countries that gives parties in a civil lawsuit the right to a trial by jury.

Holders of patents, dubbed "patent trolls" by detractors, are suing the likes of Microsoft and Apple for using ideas they claim to have invented but never fully implemented in the marketplace and winning large sums.

As in the Blurred Lines case, outcomes are decided by a jury composed of people from all walks of life.

These juries tend to favour the small companies bringing suits against giants, a fact many attribute to anti-corporation bias, which holds that Goliath companies owe a debt to the weaker ones, based on the supposition that large companies are inherently greedy and bullying.

To bolster their chances of winning, plaintiffs file their suits not in California or New York but in East Texas, a district known to be sympathetic to Davids.

In the case of this song, maybe the laymen are not as dumb as the music pros make them out to be. It might be obvious to the jurors that two songs with the same feel are not necessarily copies of each other, but they are still rooting for the "small" guy.

Admittedly, the small guy we are talking about is the not-very-obscure musician Gaye. But the jurors might have thought that Thicke and Williams are young and rich, and that the two millionaires have climbed high on the shoulders of the legendary Gaye. The eight-person jury, some have also noted, were closer in age to fans of Gaye than of Thicke.

Therefore, the inmates are not running the asylum - they are only redressing what they see as an imbalance. The jurors might be able to hear that Blurred Lines is not a clone of Got To Give It Up, but feel that it owes the older song a musical debt.

Perhaps they felt that it was time that such debts were paid with something more substantial than words.

johnlui@sph.com.sg