The Legal Beat: 50 Cent Loses Appeal Against Rick Ross

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson had a monster hit in 2003 called “In Da Club” (one of my favorite rap songs). In 2015 Jackson sued rapper Rick Ross (real name William Leonard Roberts III) after Ross rapped over the beat of “In Da Club” for his mixtape promoting his Black Market album. 50 claimed that Ross unlawfully used his name and voice in his remix.

Jackson’s attorney told Billboard magazine in 2015 that “50 Cent‘s most valuable asset is the name and reputation he has painstakingly built through his Grammy-winning music, acting, and business endeavors. He chooses his projects carefully for the very purpose of protecting that name and reputation.” 50’s lawyer also stated that Ross used “in Da Club” unlawfully “to advertise his own album.”

By way of background, using the “name and likeness” of a person happens when an individual or business uses someone’s name, photograph, or other defining attributes or “likeness” for a commercial purpose, such as advertising or promo. And the “right of publicity” is a person’s right to control and profit from the commercial exploitation of his or her name, likeness and persona.

The district court held that Jackson’s claims were not valid because he did not own the copyright or the right of publicity at the time of the recording. It was actually 50’s former record label, Shady/Aftermath, that owned these rights. The lawsuit was dismissed by the court in 2018.

Jackson appealed to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. On Aug. 19, 2020, the court upheld the dismissal by the lower court. The appeals court also stated that Shady/Aftermath might have the right to sue, or 50 could sue Shady for not protecting his rights

The Court of Appeals ruled that on the basis that “Roberts did not employ Jackson’s name or persona in a manner that falsely implied Jackson’s endorsement of Roberts, his mixtape, or his forthcoming album,” and the court also ruled that federal copyright law took precedence of 50’s state law right of publicity claim.

50 had signed a recording contract with Shady/Aftermath that gave them “perpetual and exclusive rights during the term of [the Recording Agreement].” The recording agreement also provided a non-exclusive right for the label to forever use 50’s name and likeness “for the purposes of trade, or for advertising purposes.....in connection with the marketing and exploitation of Phonographs and Covered Videos.”

According to Ross’s attorneys “Had 50 Cent been successful in this, it would’ve had the effect of making licensees not only have to go to the owner of the underlying master copyright, and the underlying musical-composition copyright owner,” but also “it would’ve made them possibly have to go to each individual artist and obtain their right of publicity, which would’ve created an entirely new legal hurdle in order to exploit music.”

Since sampling is so prominent in rap music, this ruling seems to favor artists who want to legally use samples without any new impediments.

GLENN LITWAK is a veteran entertainment attorney based in Santa Monica, CA. He has represented platinum-selling recording artists, Grammy-winning music producers, hit songwriters, management and production companies, music publishers and independent record labels. Glenn is also a frequent speaker at music industry conferences around the country, such as South by Southwest and the Billboard Music in Film and TV Conference. Email Litwak at [email protected] or visit glennlitwak.com.

This article is a very brief overview of the subject matter and does not constitute legal advice.