Sorry is not enough: Tracy Chapman v. Niki Minaj

March 18, 2019

Judge with gavel at wooden table
Sometimes, “sorry” is not good enough. That seems to be the case in the ongoing dispute between Tracy Chapman and Niki Minaj over the songs “Baby Can I Hold You” and “Sorry”. Last month, a federal district court in California, partially rejected Niki Minaj’s motion for summary judgment. The matter will now go to trial on the issue of whether Niki Minaj leaked her version of Chapman’s song to the public. In 1988, Tracy Chapman released her hit song “Baby Can I Hold You”. Several years later, Niki Minaj discovered a version of the song and liked it so much she wanted to create her own version. She took Tracy Chapman’s work and added additional lyrics and melodies and called it “Sorry.” She then asked Tracy Chapman for a license so she could release the song on her 2018 album Queen. Tracy Chapman refused. If Niki Minaj had stopped there, there would be no more story to tell. Unfortunately, the song was “leaked” to a well-known DJ, Fukmaster Flex, who played the song in public. Minaj purportedly gave the song to Flex. Flex then posted on his Instagram account that he received the song from Minaj and was going to play during his show. In court, however, Minaj denies that she did so. Flex now also denies that he received the song from Minaj, which seems suspicious. Tracy Chapman sued Niki Minaj for copyright infringement alleging that 1) Niki Minaj infringed her copyright when she created the derivative work without permission and 2) Niki Minaj distributed that derivative work to DJ Flex, again without permission. Niki Minaj filed for summary judgment, which the Court partially granted concerning Niki Minaj’s creation of the work. The Court, however, set the matter for trial concerning the distribution of the song to the public. According to the Court, it is not infringing to create a demo work if the intent is to use the work to secure a license from the copyright owner. This type of work is not for commercial use and therefore not infringing. There is, however, a question of fact, as to whether Niki Minaj then distributed the work she created and in doing so infringed Tracy Chapman’s rights. Stay tuned for a very interesting trial.


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