Emulation vs. Copyright Infringement

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Marvin Gaye’s influence on music is undeniably significant and pervasive. Given that, how does one measure the difference between emulation and rip-off? In the case of Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines,” the use of Gaye’s music was so undeniable and complete that even a casual listener could identify the misuse. But if the alleged infringement takes the form of a borrowed chord progression or rhythm, subsumed under layers of dominating pop vocals, is that infringement or influence?

The family of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer on the song “Let’s Get It On,” have identified what they think is an inappropriate use of the song’s “melody, harmony, and rhythm compositions” in Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and are suing for copyright infringement as a result. The parallels are clear, but what’s a bit muddied is whether those parallels constitute theft. Listen to both tracks below.


Liz Wood is a freelance editor, fiction writer, and current student in the NYU MFA program. More from this author →