Can a Jay Z Song Violate Your Moral Rights?

In an unusual trial, the mogul and rapper’s 2000 hit “Big Pimpin’” is at the center of a lawsuit centered on the song’s content.

Mark J. Rebilas / USA TODAY Sports

More than 15 years after Jay Z and Timbaland’s “Big Pimpin’” thumped in ubiquity across the suburbs of America, the two men are ensnared in an unusual copyright-infringement trial.

According to the AP, a lawyer for the heirs of the Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, whose 1950s song “Khosara Khosara” was used in the hit, have “accused the men of violating Hamdi’s ‘moral rights,’ a legal concept he said is well-established in Egypt that would have required them to get permission to use elements of ‘Khosara Khosara’ in a song celebrating a promiscuous lifestyle.”

The American way of thinking goes that the two men, having repeatedly paid the copyright fees for the song, should therefore be free to do whatever they wish with the music. But, in 2011, a California judge said not so fast.

In either a much-belated salvo in the East Coast/West Coast feud or some considerable deference to Egyptian law, Judge Christina Snyder said the lawsuit had standing and gave the blessing to let a jury decide “whether the use of ‘Khosara Khosara’ was outside the scope of the licenses at issue.”

In other words, “economic rights” are just one aspect of copyright laws in Egypt. In this case, the “moral rights” afforded Hamdi’s heirs could actually limit the way a song sample could be used. On Tuesday, the trial finally began.

The question of what “Big Pimpin’” is about is pretty cut and dry. The music exegesis website Rap Genius describes the song as an ode to the pimpinglifestyle: sex with girls without becoming emotionally attached to them.” For what it’s worth, the song was also part of an album given a parental advisory warning for its “explicit” content by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Rap Genius points to an interview NPR’s Terry Gross conducted with Jay Z in which she asked him what she calls “the bitch and ho question,” specifically, why so many male rappers demand respect from women, but don’t reciprocate.

In a reply that predates the lawsuit, Jay Z lists “Big Pimpin’” as part of a continuum in which his attitude toward women evolves as he raps less and less about his younger self.

I mean, a song on my first album was “Ain’t No Nigga”—I guess ya’ll can bleep that out. You know, and it was like, this careless relationship. And then that went to “Big Pimpin’” in ’99. And on that same album was a song called “Song Cry,” and then “Song Cry” became “Bonnie & Clyde” on 2004, which became “Venus vs. Mars” on my last album. So there’s a steady growth in the conversations—that’s being had as it pertains to women, you know, as I grew.

(For more on this, read Ta-Nehisi Coates, who argued in 2012 that misogyny in hip-hop may be more profane, but is no more pernicious than many other forms of art.)

Will any of this influence a jury? Probably not. But with royalties and concert revenue at stake, Jay Z and Timbaland appeared in court for the opening of the trial on Tuesday in Los Angeles.