Tracy Chapman Wins $450K in Copyright Suit Against Nicki Minaj

Tracy Chapman
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The cost of taking another songwriter's work without permission and illicitly leaking a remade version is $450,000. That's what Nicki Minaj will be paying Tracy Chapman to satisfy her copyright infringement claims over "Sorry," a derivative of "Baby Can I Hold You."

On Thursday, documents became public in California federal court reflecting the fact that Chapman had accepted Minaj's offer of judgment. As a result, the two will not proceed to a trial later this year. By accepting Minaj's offer, Chapman not only scores a win in the case and $450,000, the esteemed singer also avoids being responsible for costs had a jury eventually decided her claims weren't worth that amount.

Chapman filed the case back in October 2018. The suit came a couple months after Minaj had released her album, Queen. While "Sorry," a collaboration with Nas, wasn't on the album, Minaj allegedly leaked the song to Funkmaster Flex, a popular radio DJ, and the song then traveled on the internet.

According to court papers in the case,  Minaj and her reps sought a license to Chapman's composition. One of the clearance specialists put on the task is said to have known that Chapman was on the “do not sample list”— an unwritten list of artists who are well-known for not allowing samples of their works. Minaj's team made efforts anyway, but Chapman rejected a request. Minaj persisted, but the song only got out through the leak.

On summary judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips came to the interesting conclusion that Minaj had a fair use right to use the song in the studio to enable musical experimentation — "A ruling uprooting these common practices would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry" — while setting up a trial to explore the facts and responsibility for the leak and ultimate distribution of the song.  Minaj may have had some hopes of ultimate prevailing, though there was still significant evidence against her.

In any event, both sides now agree that $450,000 is a reasonable amount for a copyright judgment on this controversy.

"I am glad to have this matter resolved and grateful for this legal outcome which affirms that artists' rights are protected by law and should be respected by other artists," says Chapman about the outcome. "I was asked in this situation numerous times for permission to use my song; in each instance, politely and in a timely manner, I unequivocally said no. Apparently Ms. Minaj chose not to hear and used my composition despite my clear and express intentions."

Chapman adds, "This lawsuit was a last report — pursued in an effort to defend myself and my work and to seek protection for the creative enterprise and expression of songwriters and independent publishers like myself."

John Gatti, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, represented Chapman.