LOS ANGELES (CN) – Music producer Timbaland fiddled with the buttons on a keyboard sampler, the same Ensoniq model he had used to create some of his biggest hits. He had just sampled a vocal beatbox and was now adding a prerecorded sample to layer the track. But something was wrong.
The keyboard was not hooked up to the hard drive of samples he needed to finish his composition. He pressed some more buttons. Nothing. If he was in his studio he might have taken a break or had an engineer come up with a solution.
But Timbaland was not in his studio. It was a Wednesday afternoon and he was testifying in a packed LA courtroom.
Across from him his attorney Christine Lepera was growing tenser by the second. With barely disguised annoyance, she summoned a technician to help the producer. The technician asked if he could approach the witness stand.
As the clock ticked, Lepera sensed that U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder was growing impatient. When it became clear that no solution was forthcoming, she urged the producer to improvise and then abandon the performance.
His testimony had started well. Jay-Z – seated across the courtroom with his attorney Andrew Bart – had suppressed laughter as his friend and collaborator raised his right hand to testify. Timbaland fought his own urge to smile.
The air of joviality continued as Lepera asked Timbaland to show off his beatboxing skills on the stand. He seemed more than happy to oblige, leaning close into the microphone and creating a beat with his vocals.
“Sure you heard that clap?” Timbaland said coolly as the courtroom erupted into laughter.
Wearing a button-up white shirt that stretched over his bulky frame and hung over his pants, Timbaland then shifted off the stand to his keyboard to show how he created Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,'” the hit single that is the focus of his copyright infringement trial.
Timbaland’s aborted performance on the keyboard sampler brought to mind another high-profile copyright case decided in a federal courthouse just a few blocks away.
In the “Blurred Lines” trial that concluded earlier this year, Robin Thicke sat behind his own electronic keyboard as he also attempted to dazzle a jury with an impromptu performance on the stand.
Thicke experienced no technical problems, breezing through a medley of hits that included U2’s “With or Without You,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” and The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”
The outcome of the trial was a different matter. It’s an outcome Timbaland and Jay-Z no doubt hope to avoid: A jury returned a $7.4 million verdict – later cut to $5.3 million – in favor of Marvin Gaye’s family, who claimed that Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied Gaye’s Motown hit “Got to Give It Up.”
That verdict shook the music world. When Jay-Z arrived in downtown LA on Tuesday to fight his own copyright battle it made international news. Among the column inches, “Blurred Lines” received more than one mention.
Both cases involve giants of the music industry – it doesn’t get much bigger than Pharrell and Jay-Z.
In addition, the lawsuits were filed by relatives of songwriters who were prominent hit-makers in the 1960s and 70s. In the case of “Blurred Lines” it was R&B legend Marvin Gaye. “Big Pimpin'” concerns Baligh Hamdi, an Arabic hit-maker from the same period.
But the differences between the two copyright cases are stark.
Hamdi’s nephew Osama Ahmed Fahmy sued Jay-Z and Timbaland eight years ago claiming they did not ask permission to sample “Khosara, Khosara.” But Jay-Z and Timbaland don’t deny that they used another artist’s work to make their best-selling single, instead claiming they had cleared the sample when Timbaland paid $100,000 to EMI.
The Gayes accused Pharrell and Thicke of ripping off their father’s work and passing it off as their own. Thicke and Pharrell said that they never intentionally copied the song and were only going for the same “feel.”
Jay-Z and Timbaland are fighting against the relative of an Egyptian songwriter who is a virtual unknown in the United States.
Marvin Gaye is one of the most recognizable figures in the history of modern music.
But the strongest argument against styling the “Big Pimpin'” as a “Blurred Lines” revival ultimately hinges on the courts’ rulings.
The award to the Gaye family sent shockwaves through the music industry, reconfiguring what it means for songwriters to cite and draw on their musical influences.
In this case, Jay-Z and Timbaland will receive the biggest shock if they have to open their wallets to pay damages.
It is not the first time that rappers and producers have faced legal challenges over sampling music without permission and it likely will not be the last.
Testimony continued this morning in Judge Synder’s courtroom as the six men and two women of the jury heard testimony from witness Chris Ancliff, current general counsel for Warner Music International. He was general counsel for EMI when it settled the “Khosara, Khosara” matter with Timbaland.
Neither Jay-Z, real name Shawn Carter, nor Timbaland, real name Timothy Mosley, were in court Thursday.The estimated two-week trial continues Friday.
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