A judge handed Nicki Minaj a significant victory on Wednesday, concluding that she had not violated copyright when she created a song based on “Baby Can I Hold You” by Tracy Chapman.
The ruling protects the industry’s practice of developing a new song based on existing material and then applying for a license from the original artist before its release. US District Judge Virginia A. Phillips has ruled that Minaj’s experimentation with Chapman’s song constitutes “fair use” and does not constitute copyright infringement.
“Artists typically experiment with works before seeking licenses from rights holders, and rights holders typically request to see a proposed work before approving a license,” the judge wrote. “A decision uprooting these common practices would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry.”
Minaj premiered the new song, “Sorry” with recording artist Nasir Bin Olu in 2017. At the time, she believed it was a remake of a song created by Shelly Thunder and was surprised to later find out that most of the lyrics and some of the melody came from Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” which was released on his debut album in 1988.
Minaj’s representatives contacted Chapman for permission to use the song, but Chapman repeatedly refused. According to her complaint, she has a general policy against granting such permission. “Sorry” was subsequently deleted from Minaj’s 2018 album, “Queen”.
However, a copy of the unreleased track made its way to DJ Flex, a radio DJ from New York City who aired it on the air. Chapman accused Minaj of providing the song to DJ Flex, but they both denied that it was from Minaj or his authorized representatives. Portions of the song then aired on “The Breakfast Club,” and the track became widely available online.
In a motion, Minaj’s attorneys have warned that Chapman’s lawsuit “should thrill those involved in the entertainment industry.”
They argued that artists should be free to create something that is based on existing material without fear of being sued for such experimentation once they approach the rights holder for a license.
“Such fluid creativity is important for all artists on the record, but particularly in hip hop,” argued Minaj’s lawyers. “With this category of music, a recording artist usually walks into the studio and experiments with dozens of different ‘rhythms’ or melody snippets, before finding a pleasing combination.
A finding in favor of Chapman, they argued, “would impose a financial and administrative burden so early in the creative process that all but the best-funded creators would be forced to give up their visions from the start.”
The judge agreed, finding that, on the whole, Minaj was protected by the doctrine of “fair use”.
A dispute remains, however, as to whether Minaj violated Chapman’s song by sending “Sorry” to DJ Flex. Chapman’s attorneys asked the judge to find the distribution an infringement of copyright in law, but the judge ruled the litigation should be referred to a jury.