Copyrights are powerful legal tools that can provide protection to artistic works. Songwriters may use these protections to help better ensure they receive financial compensation if another artist uses their work. Legal battles over these types of artistic works are not uncommon. A recent example involving a music industry superstar provides an example.

Accusations of infringement: Nicki Minaj brought into legal battle

Tracy Chapman claims music industry superstar Nicki Minaj infringed her copyright on the song Baby Can I Hold You. According to court documents, Ms. Chapman states Ms. Minaj incorporated lyrics and melodies of Ms. Chapman’s work and then distributed the new work to DJs.

Ms. Minaj explains that she experimented with the material prior to getting official permission in the form of a license, but that this is standard practice. This is common practice. The original songwriter will often request a copy of the new work before granting a license.

Ultimately, Ms. Minaj does not dispute using the material but states her actions were legal, constituting fair use.

Copyright infringement: The basics

In order to establish copyright infringement, the songwriter would need to show that they own a copyright and that the other artist violated the terms of the copyright.

Application of the law: Did Ms. Minaj violate the copyright?

In this case, Ms. Chapman provided adequate documentation of the copyright. As such, she satisfied the first element noted above. The second is a bit more nuanced.

Ms. Minaj argues that the second element is not satisfied because her actions qualify as fair use of the material. Fair use of copyrighted materials is not a bright line rule. Whether or not the artist’s new work qualifies as fair use depends on the circumstances. The court generally considers four factors when answering this question:

  • What was the purpose of the use?
  • What was the nature of the original work?
  • How much of the original work was used in creation of the new work?
  • Did the use of the original work impact the market or value of the copyrighted work?

Ultimately, the court held in favor of Ms. Minaj. They stated a ruling in favor of Ms. Chapman would have limited creativity and stifled innovation within the music industry.