The song “Baby Can I Hold You” became a Top 50 hit after it was released in 1988 by singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. Fast forward to 2018, when Nicki Minaj created a song called “Sorry,” which borrowed heavily from Chapman. Now Minaj has been ordered to pay Chapman $450,000 in a copyright infringement dispute.
Minaj isn’t the first hip-hop artist to be inspired by a previous release. In fact, a genre was born on sampling the works of others. But in this case, Chapman wasn’t all too happy about the Minaj appropriation.
“As a songwriter and an independent publisher I have been known to be protective of my work,” Chapman said in a statement. “I have never authorized the use of my songs for samples or requested a sample. This lawsuit was a last resort.”
Minaji and Chapman have agreed to a judgment of copyright infringement against Minaj, and a payment of $450,000 to Chapman, according to documents made public on Jan. 7 in federal court in California, where the case was being adjudicated.
Chapman sued Minaj for copyright infringement in late 2018 over “Sorry,” and the lawsuit sparked major debate in the entertainment industry — and on Twitter.
The Minaj song, which she recorded with hip-hop legend Nas, was never officially released, although it had been played on the radio by Funkmaster Flex, a celebrity D.J. on the New York radio station Hot 97, The New York Times reported.
“How can you sue someone for a song that was never released to be monetized, and played on the radio without consent? So yall gonna go back and sue every artist that put out mixtapes?? Smh,” one person tweeted.
Another replied, “You’ve clearly never written yourself. The tune is her intellectual property. Plus her songs are her livelihood.”
According to Chapman, Minaj used “Baby Can I Hold You” without permission. Minaj, she claimed, asked for it and Chapman said no. But Minaj argued that “Sorry,” even without a license from Chapman, was protected by the principle of “fair use.”
“Fair use” permits creators to borrow copyrighted material “under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder,” according to Oxford Languages.
The lawsuit raised questions such as: Are artists liable for copyright infringement for works in progress? Must artists get permission even to experiment in the studio?
Minaj won somewhat of a victory in September when Judge Virginia A. Phillips of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles sided with her on the question of fair use. Judge Phillips wrote that “uprooting” the common practice of letting artists experiment privately “would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry.”
Still, if “Sorry” was part of an experimental experience, how did it make its way to the radio? And since it did, the judge said the case should go to trial. Instead of that happening, Minaj’s lawyers offered Chapman $450,000, “inclusive of all costs and attorney fees incurred to date,” on Dec. 17. Chapman’s team accepted the settlement on Dec. 30, The Times reported.
A trial would have revealed whether “Sorry,” which was to be on her album “Queen,” had been leaked to the radio by Minaj — something she denied. Minaj claimed a blogger passed the song on to the radio. When “Queen” dropped in August 2018, it did not have the song “Sorry” in the track lineup. Minaj “sent a private message on her Instagram account to Funkmaster Flex, who had a popular radio show in New York. Together, the two made plans to debut a song that wasn’t on the album,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. That song was “Sorry.”
Minaj and Nas worked on the song without getting permission from Chapman, something they requested after the song was finished. When Chapman turned down the request, Minaj tweeted on Aug. 1, 2018, “I’m torn, y’all help. Tracy Chapman, can you please hit me. omg for the love of #Queen.”
Minaj spoke with Nas, Funkmaster Flex, and others about the situation, according to Hollywood Reporter. The day after Minaj’s album was set to release, Funkmaster Flex posted on Instagram, “Shhhhhhh!!!! TONIGHT 7PM!!! NICKY GA VE ME SOMETHING!!! @nickiminaj ft @nas !!! (NOT ON HER ALBUM!) GONNA STOP THE CITY TONIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
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Flex played “Sorry” and the New York radio station posted a link on its Instagram page.
Minaj claimed in court papers that as an artist she has the right to experiment.
“[I]n the process of creation, no one approaches the original songwriter (the ‘rights holder’) for a license to experiment,” stated Minaj’s court brief. “The musicians just experiment. If something works, and the recording artist wants to release the song commercially, then the record label, managers, and attorneys get involved and seek the required permission. If it is granted, the recording is commercially released. If permission is denied, the recording is discarded; no one is harmed; and the experimentation begins anew.”