What Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' Can Teach You About Stealing Ideas
I'm on vacation right now, and there's one song that just keeps being played on the radio. I love it. And part of the reason why I love it, I realized, is because it sounds like a song I've heard before -- or parts of it do anyway. I'm talking about "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke, featuring Pharell Williams and T.I., of course. It's the song of the summer because it just stays with you. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what older song I was thinking of when I heard it.
But last Thursday, I read that attorneys for Thicke, Williams, and T.I. had filed a pre-emptive lawsuit in Los Angeles, asking a judge to determine that their song does not, in fact, copy a song composed by Marvin Gaye ("Got to Give it Up") or George Clinton ("Sexy Ways"). The lawsuit reads: "Plaintiffs created a hit and did it without copying anyone else's composition." The lawsuit is a response to claims that "Blurred Lines" borrows heavily from Gaye's song.
This raises some interesting questions about originality. I'm going to be honest here. I don't think there are any new ideas. Anyone who claims to have developed a totally original idea is ignorant. It's impossible to ignore the reality that other people and their ideas have and do influence all of us, all the time. New ideas are usually formed by mixing and matching older ideas. And that's why the title of the song, "Blurred Lines," is uncannily appropriate here. It can become very unclear what constitutes stepping over the line and infringing on intellectual property, and what doesn't. Is the song too similar? I don't know. There are those that believe it is, and others that disagree.
What I do know is that it's important to do your homework. If you have an idea, do a prior art search and a patent search immediately before moving forward. The question you should be asking yourself as you search through intellectual property isn't "Has this been done before?" but: "How can I make sure that my idea is different enough?"
In fact, I'm concerned when a student tells me he or she can't find any other products that are similar to their idea. "Maybe there's a reason for that," I tell them. Maybe no one actually wants that idea. It's a question worth asking. The goal of doing this research is to make sure your idea is clearly different enough that no one is going to come after you with a lawsuit. It just isn't worth it. You don't want to step on anyone's toes.
Being influenced by the past isn't only acceptable; it's wonderful. "Blurred Lines" certainly does have elements of the past -- the lawsuit goes so far as to say the artists intentionally wanted the song to "evoke an era." And it does. Maybe a little too well.
So please, be influenced, but make sure that you're original. It's better to be careful, because it's obvious how blurred the lines can become.