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Notorious BIG heirs square off against widow of hip-hop photog in image rights fight

The rapper's heirs and an iconic photographer fell out after negotiations to renew a licensing agreement collapsed.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The heirs of the late Notorious B.I.G. squared off in court against the widow of hip-hop photographer Chi Modu over the right to use images of the rapper on skateboards, shower curtains and nonfungible tokens.

Notorious BIG LLC, set up by the mother and wife of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, asked a judge to stop Sophia Modu from selling merchandise with her late husband's photos of the rapper, claiming it violates their right to publicity.

U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt didn't rule on the request at a hearing Monday in Los Angeles, indicating his decision will hinge on how long Notorious BIG LLC was aware of Modu's product line before suing in 2019. He instructed both sides to file supplemental briefings on that issue and told the parties to consider sitting down with a mediator to try to resolve their conflict.

Wallace was killed in a drive-shooting in Los Angeles in 1997. The murder of the 24-year-old rapper came six months after the killing of Tupac Shakur, also in a drive-by shooting, in Las Vegas. The shootings have been linked to the rivalry at the time between East Coast and West Coast rappers, but neither murder has been solved. Modu, a Nigerian-born photographer, took many iconic photos of hip-hop artists in the 1990s, including of Wallace and Shakur.

Wallace's heirs sued Modu and a maker of snowboards in 2019 over the use of a famous 1996 photo of Wallace with the World Trade Center in the background on snowboards. Modu died in 2021 and the snowboard maker settled with the Wallace family, leaving Modu's widow as the defendant.

Modu claims her husband had been licensing his photos of Wallace to others since the 1990s, including to the Wallace heirs' own marketing company, and that there hadn't been any issue regarding the right to publicity until her husband sought more money from the heirs' marketing company in 2018.

Modu was receiving just $3,000 per photo per year from Wallace's heirs and discovered in a lawsuit between the estate and another photographer that the heirs were making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the photos he licensed to them, Ross Charap, a lawyer for Sophia Modu said at Monday's hearing. After Modu's death, representatives of Wallace's estate started trying to get the copyright to his photos from his widow, he said.

"It makes my blood boil," Charap said. "This man helped make Mr. Wallace a legend. There's no doubt about it."

Charap said Wallace's heirs only sued after failing to negotiate a new licensing deal with Modu. They had been well aware of the merchandise with Modu's photos of Wallace before they sued, he said.

Mark Zhai, an attorney representing Notorious BIG LLC, told the judge that Modu began using Biggie's likeness on merchandise after failing to renew the licensing agreement for his photos. The estate found out about the skateboards, shower curtains, and nonfungible tokens after the lawsuit was filed over the snowboards, Zhai said.

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