California Court of Appeal affirms summary judgment in favor of rap musician William Roberts, who performs under stage name Rick Ross, finding that his use of name was sufficiently transformative as to be First Amendment-protected fair use, insulating him from a right of publicity suit brought by the notorious former cocaine dealer Ricky Ross.
Plaintiff-Appellant Ricky D. Ross, a notorious former criminal, brought this action against professional rap musician William Roberts (and related entities), alleging various claims including violation of Ross’s statutory and common law right of publicity, false advertising, unjust enrichment, unfair business practices, and misappropriation of name and identity.
Ross is the former head of a large criminal enterprise dealing cocaine in the 1980s, which earned him a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Ross was indicted and served time on drug trafficking charges and became somewhat notorious in that role. Defendant Roberts claimed that his stage name is a play on the phrase “big boss” and denied that his stage name is based on plaintiff’s name, despite using lyrics appearing to mimic Ross and containing fictional stories about running large-scale cocaine operations.
Although the trial court awarded summary judgment to defendant Roberts on statute of limitations grounds and laches, the appellate court affirmed on a separate basis: the court found that the First Amendment provided a complete defense to plaintiff’s right of publicity and related claims. Applying the test set forth by the California Supreme Court in Comedy III Production, Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc. 25 Cal. 4th 387 (2001), the court found that defendant’s work and use of the name in connection with his work was “transformative,” in that Roberts did not simply steal plaintiff’s likeness, name, or reputation to sell records, but made original artistic works incorporating fictional tales of drug dealing and other criminal exploits. According to the court, “Roberts’ music and persona are much more than literal depictions of the real Rick Ross,” and were thus completely protected by the First Amendment.
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