Nicki Minaj has just scored a major legal victory against Tracy Chapman in a copyright infringement dispute. What's more, Minaj's win could have a huge impact on the way music is written and how artists borrow from one another.
Per Variety, on Wednesday a judge found that Minaj did not commit copyright infringement when she created a song based on Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You.” By ruling Minaj's experimentation with the song as "fair use," the ruling protects the practice of developing a new song based on existing material before requesting a license.
In 2017, Minaj recorded a track "Sorry" that interpolated the Chapman song by lifting lyrics from the original. Minaj and her representatives reached out to get permission for the song but Chapman repeatedly refused. Ultimately "Sorry" was dropped from the tracklist for the rapper's 2018 album Queen.
While "Sorry" didn't end up on Queen, things went south when the track found its way on to the radio. Minaj allegedly hadn't sanctioned the leak when New York’s DJ Funkmaster Flex broadcast it on air. The track subsequently began circulating online, at which point Chapman filed the lawsuit.
Not only did Chapman claim that Minaj shared the song deliberately, but she also said the rapper shouldn't have been allowed to make the unauthorized song in the first place, even as a demo. This is the key point of disagreement in the case. Meanwhile, Minaj's attorneys argued she was allowed to create the song under an exception to copyright law known as "fair use."
That is how things usually work in the industry; artists create something with someone else’s work and then run it by the original artist. Chapman's argument demands that this very process should be prohibited. "The relatively novel legal question here is whether it is a fair use for somebody to make copies of someone else’s work in order to send it to the author and say, ‘Look, listen to it. Isn’t it great? Won’t you license it to me?'" said Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law.
"Can you imagine what the world would look like if every artist who goes into the studio has to get a license merely to experiment with someone’s music?" said Pete Ross, one of Minaj’s attorneys.
John Gatti, one of Chapman’s attorneys, argued to dismiss the doctrine of fair use, saying copyright law is not for the artists doing the copying, it should protect the original creator. “What the law protects is that Tracy Chapman, in this case, has the absolute right to control how her intellectual property is performed, presented and exploited,” Gatti said. “The argument on the other side is really turning established copyright law on its head.”
Minaj’s attorneys warned that Chapman’s argument could fundamentally change the musical landscape for the worse and "should send a shiver down the spine of those concerned with the entertainment industry." A finding in Chapman’s favor, they 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 in this case, Minaj's interpolation of the song constituted fair use. “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.”
For now, the dispute remains as to whether Nicki Minaj sent "Sorry" to DJ Flex with intent to distribute. However, artists can rest assured that their right to create music on existing material is protected, and they don't need to worry that they could be sued for their creative process.