By Jason Meisner
7:16 AM CDT, September 11, 2013
Pop star Nicki Minaj burned up dance floors last summer with her hit song "Starships," which set a Billboard record for its stretch of 21 consecutive weeks in the Top 10.
Clive Tanaka, meanwhile, is an underground artist who has cloaked himself in mystery. While his meticulously crafted electronic music has won accolades, he's never performed in public. His fans don't know his real name or even where he hails from.
Now Tanaka, in a lawsuit filed under the name of his company, is accusing the Trinidad-born Minaj of stealing from his 2011 song "Neu Chicago" to create the electro-pop hooks that drove her best-selling single.
In a copyright infringement suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Tanaka said Minaj and several of her "Starships" collaborators copied substantial portions of "Neu Chicago," which Tanaka claims had already enjoyed widespread airplay in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of listens online by the time "Starships" was written.
Tanaka, whose company, Tanaka Light Industries USA, lists a business address in an industrial building on Chicago's West Side, was not available for comment. The only personal information provided in the suit states that Tanaka was born in 1976 and is a U.S. citizen.
His attorney, Christopher Niro, said Tanaka was "working on a new album and screenplay," possibly in South America.
"Argentina, from what I was told," Niro said in an interview at his Loop offices at Niro, Haller & Niro. "He's kind of a reclusive — he makes and produces music and that's his goal."
In addition to Minaj, the lawsuit names RedOne, whose real name is Nadir Khayat, a Moroccan producer and songwriter behind hits for stars like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull. Also named are three other writers on "Starships," Carl Falk, Wayne Hector and Rami Yacoub.
Calls to Minaj's manager, Manny Halley, as well as to representatives of RedOne, were not returned Tuesday.
According to the suit, RedOne and Minaj's other collaborators are citizens of Sweden and may have been living there around the time when "Neu Chicago" was being used in television advertising campaigns for a clothing retailer as well as a Swedish beverage company.
"They had a very good opportunity to hear it," Niro said.
Copyright lawsuits are fairly common in federal court, from amateurs who claim an artist stole an idea off a mix tape they submitted to accusations over unattributed music sampling, according to industry experts.
In one high-profile case last month, a dispute between pop star Robin Thicke and the estate of funk legend Marvin Gaye landed in a federal court in California after members of Gaye's camp complained about similarities between Thicke's summer hit "Blurred Lines" and compositions by Gaye as well as the band Funkadelic. Thicke claims the Gaye estate is trying to copyright an entire genre.
Matthew Sag, a Loyola University Chicago law professor specializing in copyright infringement, said the line between imitation and illegal copying can be blurry.
"You want to reward creativity, but you don't want to accidentally punish people for using what are the building blocks of an entire style of music," Sag said. "No one owns a genre."
Sag said the first step in a copyright suit is to prove that the defendants were in a position to have heard the music that was allegedly stolen. In Tanaka's case, proving the writers were living in Sweden when Tanaka's song was being played on radio and TV could be crucial, he said. Minaj and her team will also have to provide records on the creative process behind "Starships," Sag said.
The lawsuit was filed more than a year after Tanaka posted a clip on the music-sharing site SoundCloud under the headline "Neu Starships." The clip synchronizes the two songs, with a listener hearing Tanaka's song in the right ear and "Starships" in the left.
"We believe they are similar to the point that it is nearly impossible for it to be a coincidence," Niro said.
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