UK copyright law and Nicki Minaj — better to be safe than ‘Sorry’

Tracy Chapman is suing Nicki Minaj for copyright infringement after a Minaj track sampling Chapman’s ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ circulated online. It is a reminder to UK businesses that as well as protecting their own intellectual property, they must also be wary of infringing others’ rights.

The infringing song, Sorry, was intended to be included in Minaj’s latest album, Queen. However, Minaj was unable to convince Chapman to license the composition of her song, with Minaj admitting defeat in a since-deleted tweet that read “Sis said no”.

Although the track did not feature in Queen, Chapman alleges that Minaj leaked the infringing song to DJ Flunkmaster Flex, who duly played it on the radio station Hot 97. Pirated copies of the track are now available online.

The Minaj and Chapman lawsuit has followed hot on the heels of recent copyright infringement cases involving The Notorious BIG, Rita Ora, Ed Sheeran, Radiohead and Lana Del Rey.

Copyright can arise in a wide variety of works, from business letters and broadcasts to dance choreography and computer programs.

One of the biggest difficulties in dealing with UK copyright law is determining whether a piece of work is even protected under copyright or not.

Unlike design rights, trade marks and patents, there is no central register of protected ‘copyrighted’ works that you can check. This is because protection arises automatically; the author cannot register the work nor does he need to write a © mark.

Indeed, even where an author asserts that a work is protected under copyright by using the © designation, this is not conclusive and does not actually mean it is protected.

However, there are some key pointers that will help you understand how copyright operates in the UK:

  1. Copyright only exists over things that are recorded in some way, whether on paper or electronically. Mere ideas in an author’s head are not protected.
  2. The work must be original. This does not mean that it cannot be inspired by (or even use an insubstantial part of) another’s work, but rather that the work must be an expression of an author’s own creative freedom, skill and effort. A perfect tracing of MC Escher’s Relativity is unlikely to be protected as an original work regardless of the time put into making the copy. However, an artist’s own drawing of a set of stairs as inspired by MC Escher might be protected as a separate, original work compared to the real Relativity.
  3. There is also no need for the work to have artistic merit to be protected by copyright. Scribblings of a plot summary on a napkin will be protected in the same way as a paragraph of text in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
  4. For musical works, copyright will exist separately in the lyrics and the musical composition; the person who owns copyright in the lyrics may well be different to the person who owns copyright in the music. Copyright protection can also exist over images used as album cover artwork.

The key is to be able to identify copyright, discover who owns it, and know how to use the protected work. Sparqa provides comprehensive guidance on all of this, as well as how to protect your own work under copyright and license it out to others to use.

Find out more at

Better to be safe than ‘Sorry’!