Atlanta Entertainment, Media & Sports Team Obtains Summary Judgment in High-Profile Music Case

Atlanta, Ga. (March 7, 2019) - On September 28, 2018, a cross-office team led by Atlanta Partners Jonathan Goins and Leron Rogers obtained a successful result in a high-profile music case, after a federal judge granted summary judgment in favor of our client, William Leonard Roberts (known professionally as Rick Ross), in a suit brought by Curtis James Jackson III (known professionally as 50 Cent). The court's ruling was a case of first impression in the Second Circuit, and likely strengthens permissible uses of copyrightable works in the music and entertainment industry against claims for right of publicity.

Due to the complexity of the issues under consideration in its decision, the court afforded the parties 30 days to file a motion for reconsideration. After taking Mr. Jackson’s motion for consideration under advisement, on February 11, 2019, the Honorable Warren W. Eginton adhered to his decision and rendered judgment in favor of Mr. Roberts. The case was terminated and counsel for Mr. Jackson filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Case Background

In the underlying lawsuit, Mr. Jackson filed a lawsuit against Mr. Roberts for remixing the popular hip-hop song "In Da Club" on one of Mr. Roberts' mixtape albums, which had been released for free over the internet in late 2015. Mr. Roberts' mixtape album included approximately 26 remixed songs, each containing excerpts from pre-existing copyrighted sound recordings from popular recording artists such as Adele, Drake, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Future, and Kendrick Lamar.

In his initial complaint, Mr. Jackson accused Mr. Roberts of federal trademark infringement and common law right of publicity for unlawfully using his name in the track title and his voice in the actual recording of Mr. Roberts' remix version of "In Da Club." We were able to dismiss Mr. Jackson's trademark infringement claim at the early pleadings' stage.

Following a three-year litigation battle, both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the remaining right of publicity claim. Mr. Jackson's summary judgment argued that his voice is part of his likeness, and that Mr. Roberts used it without his permission in the context of promoting himself. In turn, we filed for summary judgment on the federal copyright preemption doctrine, asserting that a growing number of courts have barred state-based right of publicity claims involving allegedly unauthorized uses of pre-existing copyrightable recordings. We also asserted First Amendment and transformative use defenses.

The Court’s Ruling

The court agreed with the preemption argument, reasoning that Mr. Jackson's voice and performance on the original masters recording of the song at-issue was a copyrightable work, which he had relinquished via his recording artist agreement. Adopting the Ninth Circuit's Laws v. Sony Music Entertainment decision, the court found that Mr. Jackson had contractually relinquished his right to use his likeness associated with the master recording of the song at-issue under the federal copyright’s preemption doctrine, and granted our summary judgment motion.

Messrs. Goins and Rogers were assisted by Hartford Partners Christopher E. Sanetti and Christy Centeno, and Atlanta Associate John Rose.

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