Pharrell and The Difference Between an Homage and Theft

Pharrell Williams – Coachella 2014 (cropped)The “internets” have been abuzz about the recent verdict handed down in the “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case. Some have called this the end of creativity in music. I call it an indictment on those that mask repurposing (e.g. stealing) as creating art of their own.

Pharrell is famous for his productions. In truth, a lot of what he does is categorized as an homage to other songs and periods of music. I liken it to what Kanye West built his name on: repurposing older songs for a new audience. And it’s a smart tactic. The melodies are familiar to most, even if they’ve never explicitly listened to the song before. And anyone that has ever studied advertising knows that repetition and familiarity are key to keeping a person’s attention.

The difference between Pharrell and Kanye? Kanye openly admits to using source material whereas Pharrell says that material was used as “inspiration” for him to create something similar in sound and feel. With “Blurred Lines,” they specifically discussed Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” as the sound they were looking for. So it is no coincidence that his song is what they got.

The music Pharrell puts together is great, but its merit is greatly diminished when he doesn’t give credit where it is due. Sure, what he does can’t be done by everybody. He has an ear and a talent for music that cannot be denied. And in many cases, he is successful in creating homages, eliciting the feel of past eras for our entertainment. But there is a fine line between sounding like an era and sounding like a “specific song” from an era.

The eight person jury deciding the case voted unanimously against Pharrell, Thicke, et al. And they were right to do so. I can’t respect someone who makes money off of the efforts of someone else and then denies that they did so. Just the fact that the Gaye clan might be able to file another suit against Pharrell for appropriating “Ain’t That Peculiar” for “Happy” speaks volumes.

The hitmakers will have to fork over $7.4 million for the anthem that brought Thicke’s career to new heights and subsequently ended it. They plan on appealing the decision, though it would probably be advisable to let dead dogs lie. Ya’ll stole 95% of the makeup of that song. You got caught. Pay the piper and move on to the next multi-million dollar production.

Consider this a warning shot to anyone who thinks it’s ok to borrow heavily from the work of anyone else. Feel free to do so, but also be prepared to pay the price.

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Daren W. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor
Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.