Rick Ross Wins His Courtroom Faceoff With 50 Cent
September 17, 2020
50 Cent and Rick Ross squared off against each other in a copyright-related lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut related to use of a sample from 50 Cent’s popular song – “In Da Club.” Jackson v. Roberts, 19-0480, slip. op. (2d Cir. Aug. 19, 2020). 50 Cent sued Rick Ross for violation of Connecticut’s common law right of publicity, but his lawsuit was dismissed by the district court judge at the summary judgment stage on the grounds that the claim was preempted by the Copyright Act. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit confirmed that 50 Cent’s common law claim was preempted and upheld the dismissal.
To market his new album, Black Market, Rick Ross created a mixtape in 2015 that was offered for free to his fans. This Renzel Remixes mixtape was a compilation of 26 remixes in which Rick Ross performed his own new lyrics over audio samples of popular songs by other artists, including Adele, Lil Wayne, and 50 Cent. The “In Da Club” remix track, which was the subject of this lawsuit, consisted of Rick Ross rapping over the instrumental track of 50 Cent’s famous song, which was followed by a thirty-second sample of 50 Cent singing the song without alteration. The track list identified 50 Cent as the original artist associated with this “In Da Club” sample. This practice is apparently common in the industry, and both artists admitted to creating mixtapes and remixes with famous songs to promote their new albums in the past.
Copyright infringement claims were not available to 50 Cent because he did not own the rights to the “In Da Club” song. The Recording Agreement between 50 Cent and Shady/Aftermath left 50 Cent without any copyright interest in the famous song, but with limited rights to use his name and likeness and the right to approve any use of a “sample” of the song. Without a copyright interest, 50 Cent was forced to rely upon allegations of the violation of his right of publicity, and Rick Ross argued that these claims were preempted by the Copyright Act.
The Court of Appeals analyzed the district court’s decision under two theories of preemption – implied and statutory. “Implied preemption precludes application of state laws to the extent that those laws interfere with or frustrate the function of the regime created by the Copyright Act.” Id. at 10. “Statutory preemption preempts state law claims to the extent that they assert rights equivalent to those protected by the Copyright Act, in works of authorship within the subject matter of federal copyright.” Id. (citing 17 U.S.C. § 301).
With respect to implied preemption, Shady/Aftermath held the copyright interest in the song and was in the position to exert control over the distribution of the song. The appellate court ruled that allowing this right of publicity suit to proceed could interfere with and frustrate the copyright interest that Shady/Aftermath has in the song. Rick Ross may have been liable to Shady/Aftermath (not 50 Cent) for copyright infringement, and therefore, enabling 50 Cent to exert control in the distribution of this song without a copyright interest would interfere with the rights created by the Copyright Act. Thus, implied preemption precluded the alleged violations of 50 Cent’s publicity rights.
Statutory preemption requires a two-part analysis. First, is the work at issue within the subject matter of copyright protection? Because a sound recording is within the subject matter of copyright protection, this requirement is satisfied if 50 Cent’s claim focuses on the sound recording. More specifically, the court determined that 50 Cent’s claims were focused on the use of the copyrighted work itself, and not the use of his identity, which in certain cases may not be within the subject matter of copyright protection. Second, is the right being asserted equivalent to the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright? The Court of Appeals determined that 50 Cent’s common law claims were synonymous with a copying claim and were not distinguishable from copyright infringement. The court believed that this lawsuit was a “thinly disguised effort to attack” the use of the song by Rick Ross. See id. at 63. Thus, 50 Cent’s claims were preempted as equivalent to those afforded by the Copyright Act.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that 50 Cent’s right of publicity claims were preempted by the Copyright Act under implied and statutory preemption. Without a copyright interest in the “In Da Club” song, 50 Cent’s lawsuit appeared to be a more of a feud between rappers than a legitimate legal dispute. 50 Cent even admitted to sampling other recording artists’ music on his own mixtapes, which appeared to make it an easy decision for both courts to dismiss his claims.
The Opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit can be found here – https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/hiphop.pdf.
Dustin Mauck focuses his practice on intellectual property and technology disputes, counseling, and licensing.
RegitzMauck PLLC is an intellectual property boutique based in Dallas, Texas. The firm focuses on providing value-based legal services to cost-conscious clients seeking high quality legal representation in intellectual property and technology matters and disputes.