When singers face the music for copyright infringement

Hip-hop star Jay Z is in a legal tangle over a sample song by Egyptian singer Baligh Hamdi. But this is not new in the music industry.

US hip-hop legend Jay Z who will  testify in a California court on Tuesday about his use of a song by Egyptian singer Baligh Hamdi, left. AP Photo; AFP
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Towards the end of the 1957 Egyptian film Boy of My Dreams (loosely based on Oscar Wilde's satirical The Importance of Being Earnest but rebooted with Egyptian cinematic splendour), heartthrob and screen legend Abdel Halim Hafez gets out of bed, puts on a robe and starts singing by a pool in a mansion.

The song is called Khosara Khosara (What a Shame) and was composed by Baligh Hamdi, the celebrated musician who has worked with a stellar cast of Arab singers, including Om Kalthoum and Warda.

Khosara Khosara's intro of lilting flutes and violins – only a few seconds long – is now the focus of a copyright infringement controversy that is set to land hip-hop legend Jay Z in a California court on Tuesday.

The brashly titled Big Pimpin (2000) was a celebration of hip-hop's growing global tentacles. The track embraced the genre's hedonistic image and the exploding southern rap scene, with an appearance by leading purveyors, the Houston duo, UGK.

It made the cut for Rolling Stone's 500 greatest songs of all time, and the unmistakable hook – "we doing big pimpin, we spending cheese" – has become a part of the modern hip-hop lexicon. The track came about when prodigious producer Timbaland found Khosara Khosara on the Best of Bellydance: from Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, a compilation-CD produced by Egyptian composer and percussionist Hossam Ramzy, and released through EMI Arabia, who had a deal with Egyptian record house Sout El Phan. Timbaland paid US$100,000 (Dh367,315), for the rights to use it.

This is where it gets complicated. Ahmed Osama Fahmy, the nephew of Baligh Hamdi, claims he is the rightful heir to the original Abdel Halim Hafez song and that EMI Arabia did not have authority to sub- licence the song to Timbaland. EMI had bought the song from Sout El Phan in 1995 and settled with Timbaland in 2001.

However, the deal EMI Arabia had with Sout El Phan expired in 2007, the year in which Fahmy launched the case in the American courts.

The case is reminiscent of the ruling earlier this year that ordered R&B stars Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay $7.4 million over their hit Blurred Lines, for its unsanctioned sampling of Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up. The duo launched an appeal against the ruling.

Sandy Wilbur, a forensic musicologist who was hired as an expert in support of Williams and Thicke, told The National that "although there were similarities in the two recordings, none of these similarities in my opinion rose to the level of copyright infringement. Inspiration does not equal copyright infringement".

Another case involves Justin Bieber and Usher – the pair are facing a $10m lawsuit for their allegedly illegal use of parts of a song by a pair of North American songwriters, Devin Copeland and Mareio Overton, in Bieber's 2010 single Somebody to Love.

And it's impossible to consider such cases without mentioning Vanilla Ice, who borrowed the bassline of David Bowie and Queen's 1981 Under Pressure for his biggest hit, 1990s Ice, Ice Baby.

The rapper agreed an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount with Bowie & Queen, who are now credited as co-songwriters on the track.

Unlike these cases, however, the negative publicity has not affected the stature of Big Pimpin. Ted Swedenburg, an ethnomusicologist at University of Arkansas who specialises in Middle Eastern music, said that despite the controversy, the song has gone a long way in generating interest in classical Arabic pop music.

“That instrumental sample is really the engine of the entire song,” he stated. “The fact that many people in the United States and abroad know that Jay Z sampled an Egyptian artist on his big hit is good for Egyptian music and, hopefully, for Abdel Halim as well as Hossam Ramzy, whose version is, in fact, sampled. It makes it cool”.

But, Swedenburg warns, “western artists and labels should make a big effort to locate copyright holders when they are sampling sounds produced abroad and then pay the fees. If it’s difficult to find any trace of legal ownership, then find the artists and pay the going rate”.

Fahmy’s lawyer, Keith Wesley, and Judith Finell, an ethnomusicologist who will serve as an expert in the case, declined to comment. There is no doubt the Jay Z case will be closely followed by the music industry, as it once again exposes the confluence of copyright infringement and cultural appropriation.