When hip hop artist, 50 Cent, first hit the music scene, many joked about his name and thought he would not last. But it looks like the joke’s on them as “50” has risen to the top, turning his rap career into a business empire, including a record label and clothing line, both labeled G-Unit, and an entertainment company, Tomorrow Today Entertainment. So when World Star Hip Hop, a website dedicated to hip hop culture, used Jackson’s and other G-Unit member’s images and likenesses without permission, you better believe “50” was all over that.
The rap artist-actor, who is quickly becoming famously known by his birth name, Curtis Jackson, sued World Star for copyright infringement, violation of his publicity rights, and trademark infringement. The intellectual property at issue includes photos of Jackson and G-Unit members, Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, from their albums Beg for Mercy and Thoughts of a Predicate Felon, and the “G-Unit” trademark. The court granted summary judgment in part for Jackson on his copyright infringement claim and his right of publicity claim, however, the court found that issues of genuine facts exist under Jackson’s trademark infringement claim.
Copyright, publicity concerns
As to the copyright claim, the court found infringement. World Star contested the validity of G-Unit’s registration. It argued that an incorrect form was used to register pictorial matter with the sound recordings; the court rejected this contention, saying the forms were correct and filed pursuant to Circular 56 of the Copyright Act. Further, the court said a reasonable jury could find the registered photos and images on World Star were exact copies, aside from one image made so Banks faces right instead of left. World Star made no claim that Jackson gave it permission to use the copyrighted photos.
As to his right of publicity claim under New York law, the court found that World Star violated his publicity rights and granted him summary judgment. World Star did not deny the images it used were of Jackson, arguing they were so poor quality that he was unrecognizable. The court, however, disagreed, stating someone familiar with Jackson could recognize him from the images. World Star also tried and failed with a statute of limitations defense. The court also denied its motion for summary judgment. In evaluating the likelihood of confusion factors, the court found sufficient evidence that a jury could find in Jackson’s favor.
The court recognized that a celebrity’s persona has trademark-like interests, so the court looked at Jackson’s persona as a “mark.” Among the factors considered: Jackson’s persona and G-Unit’s mark are well-known to hip-hop fans; World Star’s use of “G-Unit Radio,” though not in the cursive font of G-Unit’s trademark; the overlap of the two parties’ hip-hop audience; World Star’s acknowledgement that it knew Jackson and G-Unit and included “hottest rappers” on its site, suggesting a jury could find the firm intended to capitalize on Jackson’s goodwill, thus acting in bad faith. Neither party was granted summary judgment on the false endorsement claim.
The judge turned to Jackson’s trademark infringement claim under Section 32a of the Lanham Act over the G-Unit trademark. The court found G-Unit a valid trademark but determined from its analysis in the false endorsement claim that a jury would best decide whether a likelihood of confusion exists as to sponsorship of World Star’s website.
It seems Jackson, aka 50 Cent, has brought his business savvy to the courtroom but can’t yet “party like it’s [his] birthday.” While awaiting this case’s next go round, let’s jam to one of 50 Cent’s #1 single.