On Wednesday (Sept. 16), a judge ruled in favor of Nicki Minaj, finding that the rapper didn’t commit copyright infringement when she created a song based on Tracy Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” as Variety reports.
The judge’s ruling protects the industry practice of creating a new record based on existing material and then seeking a license from the original artist before the song’s release.
U.S. district judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled that Nicki Minaj’s experimentation with Tracy Chapman’s song constitutes “fair use” and isn’t copyright infringement.
“Artists usually experiment with works before seeking licenses from rights holders and rights holders typically ask to see a proposed work before approving a license,” the judge wrote. “A ruling uprooting these common practices would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry.”
In 2017, the rapper created the song entitled “Sorry,” alongside Nasir Bin Olu. At the time, Minaj believed the song was a remake of a track created by Shelly Thunder and was surprised to later learn that most of the lyrics and some of the melody derived from Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” which was released in 1988 on Chapman’s debut album.
Minaj’s reps reached out to Chapman in an attempt to garner permission to use the song. However, Chapman refused repeatedly. Chapman has a blanket policy against granting permission for samples, according to the lawsuit. “Sorry” was removed from Minaj’s 2018 album Queen.
However, a copy of the unreleased record found its way to DJ Flex, a New York radio DJ who played the song on air. Chapman accused the rapper of giving DJ Flex the record. However, both Flex and Minaj denied that the song came from Minaj or her authorized representatives. Portions of the track later aired on “The Breakfast Club,” and the song became widely available digitally.
Minaj’s lawyers warned that Chapman’s suit “should send a shiver down the spine of those concerned with the entertainment industry,” in a motion. The attorneys argued that artists need to be free to create something that is based on existing material without having to worry about possibly being sued for such experimentation once they approach the rights-holder for a license.
“Such free-flowing creativity is important to all recording artists, but particularly in hip hop,” Nicki Minaj’s lawyers argued. “With that category of music, a recording artist typically goes into the studio and experiments with dozens of different ‘beats’ or snippets of melodies, before hitting upon a pleasing combination.”
A finding in Tracy Chapman’s favor, the lawyers argued, “would impose a financial and administrative burden so early in the creative process that all but the most well-funded creators would be forced to abandon their visions at the outset.”
The judge agreed, finding that Nicki Minaj was protected by the “fair use” doctrine on balance. A dispute remains as to whether Minaj infringed on Chapman’s song record by sending the song to DJ Flex. Chapman’s attorneys asked the judge to find that the distribution constituted copyright infringement as a matter of law. However, the judge ruled that the dispute would need to go to a jury.