Songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found to have plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” when the verdict was announced Tuesday. The jury awarded Gaye’s children almost $7.4 million.
One person who disagrees with the verdict is Joe Escalante — a founding members of the punk band The Vandals and also a former entertainment lawyer. The Frame's John Horn spoke with Escalante about why he thinks the jury got the verdict wrong and what effect this case could have on the music industry:
What was your reaction to the ruling?
I had been following the trial and I thought, Surely no jury could misunderstand this case. But I think they got it wrong, and I was pretty shocked. I think it's a disappointing verdict for all the artists in the world, except for the estate of Marvin Gaye.
One of the issues at the center of this trial was the difference between inspiration and theft, and what Pharrell said about wanting to capture the feel of Marvin Gaye is not technically copyright infringement, but the jury found otherwise. You don't agree — you think the songs are not that similar.
Well, when you hear them they sound like similar songs, in the same way if you hear an Iron Maiden song and an Avenged Sevenfold song, or a Metallica song and a Megadeth song, you might say, These are two similar songs. And when you play them in front of eight elderly jury members, what are they going to say? Ah, they all sound the same to me!
That's what they're going off of and, emotionally, they might be thinking, Well, why not get some of this money and share it with Marvin Gaye's estate? He's a revered, classic artist, and these guys look like two drunk, drug-taking jokers.
You're in the punk band The Vandals, and I don't want you to incriminate yourself here, but I assume that when you're writing a song, it's almost impossible not to reference other punk songs that have come before.
Absolutely. The Dickies, Devo, The Clash and even The Ramones come into The Vandals, because we tried to evoke the sound and the feel of their recordings. We're in a scene and a genre, and everybody's copying from each other, influencing each other, and that's how you create a genre. This decision could make it such that one person or group is the king of a genre, and everybody has to go to them before making their own songs.
When you talk about this case with other musicians, what's the group thought on what this effect could be on how people create music?
People will create music the same way, but when they get in the studio there will be a chilling effect. Record labels are going to over-analyze music and tell people to go back and change their music — now we'll have lawyers that will dictate how music should sound. That's not a good place to be. As a lawyer-musician [myself], the two halves of the brain don't work well together. [laughs]