Musician Jay-Z wins copyright infringement lawsuit

Musician Jay-Z wins copyright infringement lawsuit

A copyright is granted to a musician when their music is fixed in a tangible medium.  United States copyright law grants the owner of a copyright the exclusive right to copy, distribute and sell the copyrighted work.  United States copyright law also grants the copyright owner the exclusive right to make derivative works.  Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines a derivative work as a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgement, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.  A derivative work might also be called a new version of the original work.  If someone other than the copyright owner exercises one of the exclusive rights granted by copyright law, that can be copyright infringement.  A copyright owner can sue to stop copyright infringement with an injunction and to get monetary damages for copyright infringement which has occurred.

The rights granted by copyright law must be balanced because of the cumulative nature of art.  Art is not created in a vacuum, the inspiration for today’s art is often drawn from art created in the past.  Many musicians are inspired by songs which they have experienced in life, to write new songs.  If a copyright owner was able to claim a series of musical notes as their property than new music would quickly stop being created.  It is up to the courts to balance the rights of copyright owners with the rights of other musicians to create new music.

The case  Osama Ahmed Fahmy v. Jay-Z et al. 16-55213 (9th Cir. 2018) illustrates the difficult job the courts have when balancing the different interests in copyrighted music.  The defendant in that case is Jay-Z aka Shawn Carter. Jay-Z is a talented and famous music writer and producer.  In 2000 Jay-Z released a song named Big Pimpin.  The song used a sample, in the background music, from a 1957 musical arrangement called Khosara.  Khosara was written by an Egyptian composer named Baligh Hamdy.  The copyright to the song Khosara was transferred multiple time and eventually Mohsen Mohammed Jaber became the copyright owner in 2002.

Baligh Hamdy passed away before the song Big Pimpin was released.  In 2007, the heir of Mr. Hamdy’s estate, Osama Ahmed Fahmy, sued Jay-Z for copyright infringement as well as violation of moral right.  Moral right is a concept similar to but different than copyright.  Essentially moral right gives an artist the inalienable right to stop their work from being used in a way the artist finds morally offensive.

The District Court found for Jay-Z.  The court concluded that the heirs of Mr. Hamdy’s estate did not have standing to sue for copyright infringement because the copyright to Khosara had been transferred to Jaber in 2002.  The plaintiff appealed to the Untied States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The plaintiff argued that the certain copyrights had been retained by Mr. Hamdy’s heirs. The Circuit court affirmed the District Court’s ruling.  The Ninth Circuit held that the agreement between Mr. Hamdy’s heirs and Jaber did not reserve any copyright for the heirs and that United States Copyright Law does not recognize moral rights related to works of art.  Because the copyright to Khosara had been transferred, the heirs could not sue for copyright infringement.

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