Hollywood Docket: Nicki Minaj Track "Sorry" Sparks Tracy Chapman Lawsuit

A roundup of entertainment legal news involving Justin Timberlake, Usher and others.
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Tracy Chapman; Nicki Minaj

Grammy Award-winning folk singer Tracy Chapman is suing Nicki Minaj, claiming she denied the rapper's request to license "Baby Can I Hold You" but she used it in "Sorry" anyway.

Over the summer Minaj and her reps made multiple requests to license Chapman's work, after having recorded "Sorry," according to a lawsuit filed Monday in California federal court. "Chapman, through her own agents and representatives, repeatedly denied [Minaj's] after-the-fact requests to use the Composition," writes attorney Robert Jacobs in the complaint. Despite that, Chapman claims Minaj gave a copy of the track, which features Nas, to New York radio DJ Funkmaster Flex who teased the song on social media before playing it on his station.

While requesting a license, Minaj's reps conveyed her track was inspired by Chapman's art, but the artist herself later tweeted that she "had no clue" the song sampled Chapman. She then asked her Twitter followers whether she should delay her upcoming album Queen in an attempt to secure the license or release the album without the track, according to the complaint. The album was released without "Sorry" on Aug. 10. Funkmaster Flex began teasing the track online the next day and after he played it "many Internet users" reproduced the song and published it online.

Chapman is suing for copyright infringement and asking the court for an injunction barring Minaj or anyone working with her from exploiting "Sorry" and requiring them to take reasonable steps to prevent third parties from exploiting it. (Read the complaint here.)

In other entertainment and music legal news:

— Justin Timberlake and will.i.am can't dodge a copyright infringement suit over their 2006 hit "Damn Girl," after a New York federal judge denied their second motion to dismiss the complaint. The sister of disco artist Perry Kibble in February 2016 sued the duo and others, claiming the hook, rhythm, harmony and melody in their song were copied from Kibble’s song "A New Day Is Here At Last." Kibble's sister, Janis McQuinton, claims to not have learned of the infringement until nearly a decade after the song was released, but the artists claim she should have known about it at least by 2007 and asked the court to dismiss as untimely any claims related to alleged infringement prior to Feb. 17, 2013.

U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick on Sept. 30 found that applying the three-year lookback as established in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2014 Raging Bull decision is inappropriate here. "Simply because a person could have bought the Album or DVD, attended a concert on the Tour, or watched the HBO Special does not mean that a reasonable person exercising due diligence in McQuinton’s position should have done any of those things," writes Broderick. "Under the discovery rule, when infringements occur more than three years prior to the filing of suit, claims for those infringements are still timely when the plaintiff discovered or should have discovered the infringements within three years of bringing suit. Applying the three-year lookback to those claims would effectively impose the injury rule because the plaintiff would be barred from recovery for infringements occurring more than three years prior to suit."

— The next round of major music royalty disputes centers on international streaming revenue. In the past month, class action lawsuits have been filed against Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group by L.A.-based firm Johnson & Johnson, whose clients claim the foreign sales revenue is being underreported. The suit against Sony is brought by the estate of Ricky Nelson in New York federal court; meanwhile, the case against WMG is led by Lenny Williams, of the '70s funk band Tower of Power, in L.A. County Superior Court. Each claim includes an allegation that the company is unfairly assessing an "intracompany charge" for international sales and taking a percentage off the top of that revenue before calculating the artists' royalties in violation of their agreements.

— The trademark fight between founding members of "Baby Come Back" group Player is one step closer to trial, after a California federal judge denied a motion to dismiss the complaint. Ronn Moss in May sued Peter Beckett, claiming he unlawfully sought to seize the group's name even though the band members applied to jointly register the Player trademark. "It is well-settled that, in the context of musical performing groups, '[t]he Lanham Act protects names of popular musical recording groups even though that name is not a registered trademark,'" finds judge Stephen V. Wilson. "Accordingly, the use of the group’s name by a single member of the group may amount to trademark infringement if the trademark for the name is held by the musical association itself, and not held by any individual band member." (Read the full order here.) Trial is currently set to begin Jan. 29.

— A Pennsylvania jury has awarded $27 million in damages to a songwriter on Usher's 2004 hit "Bad Girl." Daniel Marino in 2011 sued his former co-writer William Guice and others claiming he wrote the song but was denied compensation and credit. The songwriter also reached a last minute settlement with Destro Music Productions, which agreed to pay him another $17.35 million. Marino was represented by Francis Malofiy, who recently won an appeal of his trial loss to Led Zeppelin in a copyright infringement dispute over "Stairway to Heaven."  

— A group of young lawyers in Nixon Peabody's Los Angeles office are using a new podcast to tackle hot-button issues like immigration and diversity. To Live and Law in LA launched in February, and its second season began Thursday. Topics covered in the coming episodes will include a ride-along with the LAPD to discuss homelessness in L..A, a first-person account of volunteering in a local immigrant detainee camp and a discussion with THR Power Lawyer Julian Petty about the lack of black executives in the hip-hop industry.