It’s not every enterprise where criminal notoriety may offer a superhighway to a greater reputation and increased commercial success. But for a rapper and a convicted cocaine-dealing street magnate the power of negative reputation was part of a legal fight — and the scuffle over a nom de guerre has ended with an appellate court issuing summary judgment favoring the musician and based in the First Amendment.
Let’s start with the legal basics: rapper William Lenard Roberts II and his music label, Maybach Music, were sued in California by Ricky D. Ross, aka the real Ricky Ross, for misappropriating his name and gaining commercial success.
Let’s introduce the heavyweights. For those not steeped in rap, Defendant Roberts (stage name Rick Ross) saw his music career blow up when he came out with his first single, Hustlin. The song may be an ear worm, even to non-rap fans because of its oft-repeated lyric, “Everyday I’m hustlin.’ ” The rapper asserts he derived his performance identity as a play off his high school football nickname, “Big Boss.”
The plaintiff, meantime, has achieved felonious notoriety in Los Angeles, especially, as Ricky Ross, Rick Ross and Freeway Ricky Ross. This guy made millions of dollars trafficking cocaine from California to Ohio, selling up to $3 million worth of cocaine a day. He has been linked to the Nicaraguan Contras, the Iran-Contra scandal and a media meltdown over purported contributing causes of the crack cocaine epidemic in urban America. So clearly he carried a certain infamy and why wouldn’t anyone want to try to ride the street rep for possible benefit — the risks of such associations notwithstanding?
After a trial court granted Roberts and his record label summary judgment, Ross appealed.
The appellate court, reviewing the case de novo, found that Roberts’ expression of Rick Ross was protected as a transformative work. When an individual right of free expression crosses over on the right of publicity, the courts apply the transformative test, which asks whether a celebrity’s likeness is a raw ingredient from which the original work is made or whether the celebrity’s likeness is the very essence of the work in question. Though Roberts’ musical work relies to some extent on Ross’ name and identity, the appellate court said, they were only “raw materials” to create his musical persona.
Roberts, the appellate judges said, created the identity of a cocaine boss turned rapper. He further made music by rapping about fictional stories of drug dealing, wealth and other feats. Essentially, his work created a new expression. Moreover, Roberts gained success primarily through his music, not through use of Ross’ name. People buy music because they like it, not because of a person’s identity.
So, shielded at least in regard to his expression, the rapper can keep on hustlin’ hustlin, as he does in this video: