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Nicki Minaj resolves Tracy Chapman copyright case with $450,000 payment

By | Published on Monday 11 January 2021

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj has resolved her ongoing copyright legal battle with Tracy Chapman for a neat $450,000. Which is a rather expensive “sorry”. And a rather expensive ‘Sorry’ too.

Chapman sued Minaj in 2018 over an unreleased track called ‘Sorry’ which was originally meant to appear on the latter’s album ‘Queen’. The track was dropped from that record at the last minute because it featured a sample of Chapman’s ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, which Minaj’s people couldn’t get cleared.

However, although being unreleased, the track was played on the radio show of New York-based DJ Funk Flex, aka Aston Taylor, alongside the release of the album. Given that Minaj had been tweeting about trying to get the Chapman sampled cleared, the airing of ‘Sorry’ was newsworthy, and plenty of fans grabbed a copy of the track from the radio broadcast, some of whom then started sharing it online.

Hence the lawsuit. Chapman accused Minaj of infringing the copyright in ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ by “creating an illegal derivative work” and “distributing that work”, the latter based on the allegation that Minaj herself had sent a copy of ‘Sorry’ to Taylor and urged him to play it.

Chapman’s lawsuit also took issue with Minaj even using an uncleared sample of ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ in the studio. However, the Minaj side successfully argued that that constituted ‘fair use’ under US copyright law, as it’s pretty standard practice for artists and producers to play around with uncleared samples in the studio, only seeking permission to make use of those samples once they’ve decided what tracks they want to release.

However, even if Minaj was allowed to use the sample without permission in private, there was still the issue of how the track got to Taylor, given that Chapman had been very clear that the sample would not be cleared and therefore ‘Sorry’ could not be released to the public.

The Chapman side gathered various social media and text messages that seemed to prove it was definitely Minaj who arranged for Taylor to play her unreleased track.

Though Minaj’s lawyers insisted that those messages had been misconstrued, and that their client had no idea how Taylor had got his hands on a copy of ‘Sorry’. Taylor himself insisted that an unnamed blogger had sent him the track, despite him actually pre-empting his playing of it at the time by tweeting “Nicki gave me something”.

Having ruled that Minaj’s use of the uncleared sample in the studio was fair use, the judge hearing the case said that the he-said-she-said claims regarding how a copy of ‘Sorry’ got to Taylor would have to be argued out in front of a jury. Therefore, the case was set to go to trial.

However, last week the two sides told the court that the case had been resolved after Chapman accepted a so called ‘rule 68 offer of judgement’ from Minaj, which basically means a judgement is filed in the former’s favour. Minaj will also pay Chapman $450,000.

A legal filing from the Minaj side stated: “Judgment shall be entered in favour of plaintiff Tracy Chapman and against defendant in the amount of $450,000, inclusive of all costs and attorney fees incurred to date”.

Speaking to Law360, a legal rep for Minaj said they had only agreed to settle because “it would have cost us more to go to trial”. Meanwhile, Chapman said that she was happy to have settled the matter, insisting that she had only gone legal as a “last resort”.

UPDATE 11 Jan 2021, 8.00pm: Amended to clarify that the case was resolved after Chapman agreed to accept a ‘rule 68 offer of judgement’ that had been made by Minaj, which included the payment.