2:18-cv-09088 (C.D. Cal. Oct 22, 2018)


​Complaining Work

​Defending Work

Tracy Chapman

“Baby Can I Hold You”

Hear Audio

Onika Tanya Maraj (Nicki Minaj)


Hear Audio


Comment by Charles Cronin

It is unclear from Chapman’s Complaint (below) whether she is alleging infringement based on unauthorized sampling of a portion of Chapman’s recording, or unauthorized copying and performance of Chapman’s musical work. While the Complaint alleges Maraj infringed upon the “lyrics and vocal melody of the Composition,” it supports this claim citing correspondence between the parties concerning Maraj’s attempts to obtain Chapman’s permission to “sample” her work — i.e. incorporate portions of Chapman’s recorded performance in Maraj’s recording.

A comparison of the two recorded performances (above) leaves one with the impression Maraj wanted to create essentially a “cover” version of Chapman’s song. This is supported by the Complaint’s assertion that Maraj’s recording used virtually all the words of the plaintiff’s song, as well as the “vocal melody”. U.S. Copyright Office guidelines on compulsory licenses for creating cover recordings state that the cover performer may “make a musical arrangement of the work to the extent necessary to conform it to the style or manner of interpretation of the performance involved,” but that one may not “change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work in the arrangement.” Maraj’s cover appears to comport with both these requirements.

The Complaint does not raise the possibility of a compulsory license because that would undermine its claim that Maraj infringed Chapman’s copyright by creating an unauthorized derivative work. Surprisingly, the defendant’s Answer to the Complaint also does not raise the issue of compulsory license, but claims Chapman has no standing to bring the claim because she is not the owner of the copyright for the contested song. Perhaps this dispute could have been averted had Maraj simply obtained a compulsory license, and paid Chapman royalties, rather than seeking authorization she may not have been legally required to obtain.

In any event, on September 19, 2020 Federal District Court Judge Virginia Phillips decided (Order linked below) that Maraj’s reference to Chapman’s song was a legally permissible fair use. She also denied Chapman’s motion for partial summary judgement that was based on a claim that Maraj violated her distribution right, noting that this claim raises triable issues of fact that a jury must resolve. Unless Chapman appeals the fair use finding, her distribution right claim appears a thin reed on which to justify ongoing litigation of this dispute.

Early January 2021 the case settled and, unusually, the parties disclosed the fact that Minaj paid Chapman $450,000 to drop her infringement claim. So, Chapman’s violation of her distribution right may not have been such a thin reed after all. Minaj’s attorney, Peter Ross, is reported to have declared that his client settled only because “it would have cost us more to go to trial.”


Complaint: PDF

Defendant (Minaj)’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment: PDF

Plaintiff (Chapman)’s Opposition to Defendant’s Motion: PDF

Order Denying Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment: PDF