How Thicke and Pharrell Blurred Lines for Photographers

Jun 11, 2015

Topic: Copyright
Time Investment: 8 Minutes

As if running a photography business by marketing and managing clients isn’t hard enough we have to worry about the legal implications of our actions.  Typically this is as easy as understanding how to get set up, what taxes to pay and how to treat clients within the law, however, recently the lines of copyright law were blurred and has left the future of photography (and other artists) blurry and scary to navigate.


The Case That Blurred It All

In March 2015, a Los Angeles federal jury found that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke committed copyright infringement of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” when they created the song Blurred Lines. The Estate of Gaye claimed copyright infringement by use of “significant and substantially similar compositional elements.” (8 similarities to be exact). However, the defense still stands that the songs sound alike simply because they were intended to have sounds attributed to a certain genre.  You can read more about the case all over the web and a variety of opinions.

This case was not only in the spotlight due to the notoriety of the singers involved, but the Gaye family was awarded $7.3 million dollars. The court reached this amount through calculations of profits and damages.

The amount of damages awarded and newsprint space taken up by this case were not the only surprising issues that came out of this case. The jury was instructed to a narrow view of copyright law by basing decision solely on sheet music and ignoring other aspects of music that lends to the art (such as inflection, tone, etc.) Because of this narrow instruction and legal precedent, copyright law for musicians (and other artists) is damaged.

Artistic creation, including photography, now has a restriction placed by fear. Fear of being inspired by other artists and in the creation of works. The majority of true artists want to create their works, even if they include an influential aspect but have little intention to replicate another artist’s work for self-gain.


If the decision is upheld, what implications could this mean for photographers?

First, we may see an increased legal action for influenced works.  Are photographers going to become even more hyper-vigiliant to similar works and seek legal action?

Second,  if photographers are influenced by another photographer’s work – is it worth the risk of legal action? This is the question that is being asked by many artists, including photographers.

Thicke and Williams have appealed the court’s decision on financial and moral grounds. Photographers, we wait to see what impact that result will have on us.  Will this negatively impact artists in the future? Will we be paralyzed in fear or given the go ahead to create from influence?

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