Nicki Minaj has won an important legal battle against Tracy Chapman.
A judge has ruled that the rapper did not commit copyright infringement when she created a song based on an interpolation of Tracy Chapman’s song ‘Baby Can I Hold You.’ Chapman had sued Minaj in 2018 for interpolating her song in the rapper’s unreleased Nas collaboration ‘Sorry’ without her permission.
Nicki had denied any infringement, asserting that the interpolation is protected by the fair use doctrine, adding that Chapman “has not properly registered her claim to the copyright in the Composition [‘Baby Can I Hold You’].” She claimed that Chapman does not own the “copyright in issue and therefore lacks standing to bring the claims alleged in the Complaint” and is not entitled to damages. The song was never officially released but Funk Flex had premiered it on his Hot 97 show in August 2018. The audio can still be found online.
U.S. district judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled that Nicki’s experimentation with Chapman’s song constitutes “fair use” and is not 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.”
Minaj’s representatives had reached out to Chapman for permission to use the song which she wanted to include on her Queen album, but the veteran artist repeatedly refused to grant it. ‘Sorry’ eventually did not make the cut on Queen.
Chapman’s legal fight will continue over whether Nicki infringed on Chapman’s song over ‘Sorry’ being played on radio. Nicki has denied that the song played by Flex was sourced from her. Chapman’s lawyers are asking the judge that the distribution of the track on radio was copyright infringement as a matter of law, but the judge ruled that the dispute will go to a jury.