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Jay Z Can Thank Supreme Court for Setback in 'Big Pimpin' Lawsuit

A win for a "Raging Bull" heiress also becomes a win for the Egyptian objecting to a sample in one of the hip-hop star's biggest hits.

Jay Z live 2014 P
Invision for Parkwood Entertainment
Jay Z

History might record Jay Z as being one of the first victims of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last May to allow Paula Petrella to sue MGM and 20th Century Fox over the Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull.

What does Jay Z have to do with Raging Bull? It's summed up by one word: laches.

The hip-hop star is involved in a lawsuit that's now 7 years old over his sampling of "Khosara, Khosara," from the 1960 Egyptian film Fata Ahlami, in his 2000 megahit "Big Pimpin." The plaintiff in the case is the nephew of late Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, who believes that Jay Z mutilated the original song.

The long-running case is a complicated one that has taken many twists and turns.

Last December, U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder affirmed that Osama Ahmed Fahmy couldn't claim copyright damages between March 30, 2001, and March 30, 2006. The former date is when "Big Pimpin" producers executed a settlement with EMI, which once asserted rights to "Khosara, Khosara" based on an agreement with the Egyptian outfit Sout El Phan. The latter date is when the deal between EMI and Sout El Phan expired.

Judge Snyder ruled that laches — or an unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim — barred Fahmy from challenging rights during this period. She allowed Fahmy to pursue discovery about whether Jay Z and other defendants (MTV, Paramount, Warner Music, etc.) were aware after 2006 that they were infringing plaintiff’s copyright. Evidence of willful infringement would beat a laches defense.

Here's where the Supreme Court's Raging Bull ruling comes in.

In May, in a 6-3 majority opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court ruled that in most instances, the equitable defense of laches can't be invoked to preclude damages claims brought within the applicable three-year statute of limitations. Petrella, the daughter of a man whose works allegedly became the basis for Raging Bull, was allowed to claim damages back to 2006 after filing a lawsuit in 2009. The decision seemed primed to usher in more copyright liability. Now, we've got proof.

In a new ruling that was issued in late July and entered on Monday (see here), Judge Snyder says the Petrella decision "represents a substantial change in the law governing laches," and applying it to the lawsuit over "Big Pimpin," opens the door to the Egyptian recovering profits from the recent exploitation of "Big Pimpin." She vacates her prior holding that laches bars plaintiff's claims.

The Supreme Court said that in "extraordinary circumstances," laches could still bar a copyright plaintiff from obtaining certain types of relief, but Judge Snyder rejects the defendants' arguments that the death of a key witness nor the substantial investment in "Big Pimpin" rises to that level.

Judge Snyder won't bar Fahmy from pursuing Jay Z's profits at this stage, but won't rule it out at a later stage after further investigation in the case. The 7-year-old case continues.

It's not all bad news for Jay Z. On Tuesday, he along with Dr. Dre and Rick Ross beat a copyright lawsuit from a gospel group alleging the song "3 Kings" improperly sampled a 1976 song. The judge ruled that co-defendant Universal Music was a co-owner of the older song and couldn't be sued for infringement.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner