Jay-Z is facing a lawsuit over claims that the mogul's mega-hit song "Big Pimpin" violates the "moral rights" of heirs of a 1960s Egyptian film composer. In a decision on Tuesday, a California federal judge ruled that the plaintiff has standing to pursue a lawsuit, even if it's grounded upon a quirky bit of Egyptian copyright code.
What is it with hip hop producers sampling decades-old film music and then getting into legal trouble?
In March, we covered how Timbaland escaped a lawsuit for illegally sampling a 1967 Bollywood tune thanks to odd Indian copyright laws. Now, Jay-Z is in hot water for sampling a musical composition "Khosara, Khosara," originally recorded for use in the 1960 Egyptian film Fata Ahlami. So far, Jay-Z isn't nearly as fortunate as Timbaland was.
The original composition was created by Baligh Hamdy, and the copyright interests passed down to his four children upon his death in 1993. One of those children, Osama Ahmed Fahmy, is the plaintiff in this case against Shawn Carter (Jay-Z), EMI Publishing, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, UMG Recordings, Warner Music, and many others.
In 1995, the Hamdy children licensed the right to mechanically reproduce "Khosara, Khosara" for sound recordings. Jay-Z and his team believe they acquired proper license to use the music.
That's where Egyptian copyright law enters the picture.
The plaintiff says that to the extent the defendants obtained a license of the song for the 2000 hit "Big Pimpin," it was merely what Egyptians call "economic rights" and only pertained to reproduction, performance or distribution of the work "without alteration."
Egyptian copyright law also confers to owners "moral rights" over copyrighted work, which according to the plaintiff's experts, can't be disposed of like "economic rights." Basically, if Jay-Z wished to "mutilate" the original song by sampling it and looping it and adding his lyrics, the plaintiff argues he needed to get the express permission of each of Baligh Hamdy's four children.
The defendants tried to waive this lawsuit away by saying that U.S. courts don't have subject matter jurisdiction over Egyptian "moral rights," but in a decision (below), Judge Christina Snyder seems willing to entertain the nuances of Egyptian law. (Moral rights aren't a completely unrecognized concept in U.S., but rarely factor heavily, especially in copyright cases.)
That doesn't mean that the plaintiff will ultimately be successful, but the judge rules that there is standing to bring the case and there will have to be further fact-finding to determine "whether the use of Khosara Khosara was outside the scope of the licenses at issue," which will include a determination of how derivative uses of music fit into the strata between economic vs. moral rights.