New York (AFP) - A ruling that pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams stole from Marvin Gaye threatens to create -- in the words of their smash hit -- even more blurred lines for songwriters who could increasingly be hauled to court over their artistic inspirations.
A jury in Los Angeles on Tuesday awarded more than $7 million to Gaye's family after finding similarities between the late Motown legend's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up" and "Blurred Lines" by Thicke and veteran songwriter Williams, which was the top-selling song in the United States in 2013.
Gaye's heirs hailed the verdict as justice. But many music professionals voiced dismay, saying that non-specialist jurors confused the influences that lie in all artists with outright theft.
"It's just a huge nail in the coffin for an already six-foot-under music industry. Now none of us have any idea what's going to win a lawsuit," said songwriter Greg Wells, who has co-written with superstars Adele and Katy Perry.
"It reaffirms to me that for most ordinary people, music sounds like Japanese to them if they're not Japanese. This just takes the fear knob and cranks it to 11 for people who do what I and Pharrell do for a living," he told AFP.
E. Michael Harrington, a composer and expert on music law at SAE Institute, Nashville, said that the ruling, if it stands, would mean that "plenty of plaintiffs can go crazy and sue everyone."
"I've never seen a decision that is this poor -- the melody wasn't taken, there were no lyrics taken, there was no chord progressions taken," he said. "If this is the standard, it's below floor level it's so low."
- 'Fine line' -
The case technically involved not the recording of "Got to Give It Up" but the sheet music, which Gaye's family owns. Recordings of the two songs have similar atmospherics, including background noise from a party.
In evidence highlighted by Gaye's team, Thicke himself had said in media interviews that he wanted to write a song like Gaye's. He backtracked in court and said he was not sober when speaking to the press.
Whatever the idiosyncracies of the case, many musicians openly cite their influences. Music industry promotional campaigns, although often not crafted by the artists themselves, routinely compare new bands to well-known stars.
The songwriter busbee, who has worked with a diverse array of artists including Shakira and Garth Brooks, said that melody infringement was a real problem but that professionals were careful.
"It's a fine line because you obviously have to be responsible as a creative person. I can't go repaint the Mona Lisa and say it's my inspiration. Equally, though, if you're second-guessing every creative move you make, that's a little bit tricky," he said.
Many songwriters say that they are regularly barraged by claims that they copied other artists, often obscure works that they had never heard of.
"No one knows every single song ever and you would basically have to submit every song to a musicologist, which wouldn't be very cost-effective," busbee said.
One prominent case emerged this year over British soul singer Sam Smith's smash hit "Stay With Me." After growing chatter about similarities between the song and Tom Petty's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down," Smith quietly added Petty and the US rocker's collaborator Jeff Lynne as co-writers.
Smith, who was born in 1992, said he had never heard "I Won't Back Down" and Petty agreed that he believed the similarities were coincidental.
- Rising lawsuits -
A different legal framework is already in place for intentional sampling. A US federal appeals court in 2005 ruled that gangsta rappers N.W.A. violated copyright rules by sampling a two-second guitar riff from George Clinton's band Funkadelic.
That case had an international impact because it was cited by Germany's top court, which supported electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk in a suit over a sample by a German hip-hop act. Artists now generally seek licensing for samples.
The rise in complaints comes at a time that the fast-changing music industry's revenues are dwindling. The money earned by Williams and Thicke for a year's top-selling song is a fraction of what an actor would earn from a Hollywood blockbuster.
Sandy Wilbur, a musicologist who testified on behalf of Thicke and Williams, said that she has seen a major increase in music copyright litigation in the past two years.
"Songwriters and composers will think twice before mentioning any others who might have inspired them. Still, inspiration is not infringement," she said.