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Judge Rules Nicki Minaj Did Not Engage in Copyright Infringement with Release of Tracy Chapman Sample

Nicki Minaj reigned victorious in a legal battle with Tracy Chapman who sued the rapper for copyright infringement in 2018.  The case centered around Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You” from her 1988 debut album, which was interpolated by Minaj on her 2017 track “Sorry.”

The Lawsuit and the Ruling 

Chapman repeatedly refused to give Minaj permission to use “Baby Can I Hold You” for her Queen album, and the song was eventually cut from the project.

However, New York DJ Funkmaster Flex played the track on air and portions of the song leaked online.  Though Minaj was not involved with the leak and had not sanctioned it, Chapman moved forward with the lawsuit. 

It is important to note that Chapman initially sued Minaj claiming that she did not have permission to use the song. The judge, however, followed fair use doctrine and ruled in favor of Minaj.  Fair use doctrine permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder. 

In her decision, US district judge Virginia A. Phillips stated, “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. A ruling uprooting these common practices would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry.”

What It Means

The ruling is being viewed as a huge win for artists. This decision could impact how artists borrow work from one another. Artists may no longer have to go through a rigorous process of acquiring permission to use previously recorded material.  Instead, they would be able to ask for permission before releasing the sampled product.

What to Expect

The court battle is still not over. The ongoing case will argue that Minaj maliciously had the track leaked after she was denied the right to use Chapman’s song. The court will soon decide if the radio release of “Sorry” was an infringement on Chapman’s rights by distribution over the radio.  

Due to the court’s initial decision, it appears that artists will be able to create and experiment with recorded music more freely. 

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