Tracy Chapman, Copyright & Why You Should Care

Creatives will always want to protect their work, and this was no different for Tracy Chapman who sued Nicki Minaj for copyright infringement.

Minaj has agreed to pay Chapman $450,000 (approximately £332,000) in order to settle the copyright dispute. Both parties were due to resolve this issue in court; a trial that the music and entertainment industry had been eagerly awaiting.

This dispute began in 2018 when Tracy Chapman sued Minaj for sampling her 1988 song Baby Can I Hold You in Minaj’s track Sorry, which featured Nas.


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What Happened?

Tracy Chapman stated that Minaj used her song without her permission and she even repeatedly said no to Minaj when asked if she could sample the song. In defence, Minaj claimed that using Chapman’s song without a licence was covered under the doctrine of fair use (known as fair dealing under English law). This is an exception to copyright protection which allows creatives to borrow material that is ordinarily protected by copyright law.

A further point of contention was the fact that Minaj has never officially released the song, but it was played on the New York radio station Hot 97.

This dispute raised two main legal issues:

  1. Whether work in progress needs to avoid infringing copyright
  2. If artists need an express licence to experiment with music in the recording studio.

What Did The Law Say?

In September 2020 at the United States District Court for the Central District of California (CDCA), Judge Phillips ruled in favour of Minaj, citing her defence of fair use. A summary judgment (a court order which prevents a case from going to trial, therefore ending the litigation process early) was ordered, with the judge stating that:

‘a ruling uprooting these common practices [of experimenting with other artists’ tracks in the studio] would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry’. Judge Phillips also ruled that there was no evidence that Sorry ‘usurps any potential market for Chapman’.

So initially it looked like Minaj had won the case. However, the judge still allowed the case to proceed to trial due to the crucial issue of how Sorry got into the hands of Funkmaster Flex, the DJ on Hot 97. Chapman’s legal team argued that Minaj had leaked the track, referencing evidence of substantial correspondences between Minaj and Funkmaster Flex. The question that would have been determined at trial was whether the leak and distribution of Minaj’s song was an act of copyright infringement.

Supreme 2019 Teaser Video With Funkmaster Flex | HYPEBEAST Tracy Chapman case

Unsurprisingly, Minaj denied that she leaked the song. Funkmaster Flex claimed that he got the track from one of his bloggers. If Minaj had in fact leaked the track or had authorised it to be leaked, she would have faced a hefty penalty at trial.

According to public court documents at the CDCA, on December 17, 2020, Minaj’s legal team made a settlement offer of $450,000 ‘inclusive of all costs and attorney fees incurred to date’. Chapman’s legal team then accepted the offer on December 30, 2020.

Well, what does this all mean for creatives?

Artists can still experiment in private with other artists’ tracks, which is common practice in the music industry. However, as the case never went to trial, the question Judge Phillips posed about whether leaking the track was copyright infringement was never discussed and remains unclear.

Words by Des Okongwu (Legal & Business Affairs Correspondent)

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