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Court Sides With Nicki Minaj On Novel Copyright Issue

United States District Judge Virginia Phillips handed Peter W. Ross's client Nicki Minaj two major victories on September 16, 2020. Minaj is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by recording artist Tracy Chapman, who alleges that Minaj infringed Chapman’s copyright in a song called Baby Can I Hold You. Chapman had two theories of the case. First, she asserted that Minaj infringed, merely by going into the studio and recording a hip hop version of the song, entitled Sorry. With regard to this claim, Mr. Ross filed a motion, asking the judge to rule that the studio recording made “fair use” of Chapman’s song and therefore did not infringe her copyright. This defense was novel and had never before been tested in court. Chapman opposed Mr. Ross’s motion. Chapman’s second claim was that Minaj, who never officially released Sorry, had nevertheless, supposedly, leaked a recording of the song to New York radio host “Funkmaster Flex.” With regard to this claim, Chapman filed a motion, asking the judge to rule that the evidence is overwhelming: Minaj leaked the song; she should be held liable. Mr. Ross opposed.

Judge Phillips sided with Mr. Ross on both motions. With respect to the studio recording, Judge Phillips agreed that it was “fair use.” She found that recording artists must have the freedom to experiment in the studio, consistent with both the purpose of the Copyright Act (to encourage creativity) and the recording industry’s “customary practice.” The Court observed that “rights holders often request copies of new works during licensing discussions and prospective licensees usually include their proposed derivative works with their initial licensing requests.” Judge Phillips firmly rejected Chapman’s argument that the potential commercial use of the studio recording rendered it ineligible for protection as a fair use.

With regard to the question of who leaked Sorry to Funkmaster Flex, the Court found that the identity of the leaker was far from undisputed. As Mr. Ross wrote in Minaj’s opposition papers, the “evidence, in many instances directly contradicts Chapman’s story,” “leav[ing] open many possibilities as to ‘who done it?’” The parties will have to answer that question by means of a trial.

Minaj is represented by Ross LLP attorneys Peter W. Ross and Eric Lauritsen.


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