LOS ANGELES (CN) - The former cocaine kingpin who claims that rapper Rick Ross stole his name and identity cannot sue, a California appeals court ruled.
Ricky D. Ross gained some notoriety in the 1980s for running a massive drug-dealing operation, selling as much as $3 million worth of cocaine daily. Freeway, as he was known, served two stints in prison for his crimes, which is where he read a magazine article about then-up-and-coming rapper who shared his name.
In 2008 it was revealed that the chart-topping performer born William Leonard Roberts II had actually been a former correctional officer before adopting the name Rick Ross and rapping about the gangster lifestyle.
The refrain of the rapper's first commercial single, "Hustlin'" in 2005, repeats a line that the convicted drug-dealer often used in press interviews: "Everyday I'm hustlin'."
Indeed many of Roberts' lyrics reference fictional stories about running his own narcotics syndicate, and he spoke early in his career about how Freeway's life story "grabbed him."
Roberts has nevertheless denied having basing his performing name on the man.
Ross sent Roberts several cease-and-desist letters from prison prior to his release in 2009, at which point he sued the rapper and record labels Maybach Music Group, Slip-N-Slide Records and Universal Music.
A Los Angeles County judge nevertheless dismissed Ross' claims under California's Celebrities Rights Act, which protects the publicity rights of famous people both in life and in death.
Noting that the statute of limitations on the claim began running in 2005 when the rapper first used the name Rick Ross, the judge said California's "single publication rule" barred any claim for damages for subsequent use of that name or persona.
A panel for the Second Appellate District had some reservations about this reasoning Monday but found that the First Amendment provided Roberts with the defense he needed to become Rick Ross.
"We recognize that Roberts' work - his music and persona as a rap musician - relies to some extent on plaintiff's name and persona," Presiding Justice Roger Boren wrote for the court. "Roberts chose to use the name 'Rick Ross.' He raps about trafficking in cocaine and brags about his wealth. These were 'raw materials' from which Roberts' music career was synthesized. But these are not the very sum and substance' of Roberts' work."
He added: "Roberts created a celebrity identity, using the name Rick Ross, of a cocaine kingpin turned rapper. He was not simply an imposter seeking to profit solely off the name and reputation of Rick Ross. Rather, he made music out of fictional tales of dealing drugs and other exploits -some of which related to plaintiff. Using the name and certain details of an infamous criminal's life as basic elements, he created original artistic works. A work is transformative if it adds 'new expression.'"
While the rapper's stage persona bears some resemblance to Freeway's real life, the resemblance is only one "raw material" in the rapper's manufactured persona, according to the ruling
"It is merely a minor detail when viewed in the context of the larger story - Roberts' music and persona are much more than literal depictions of the real Rick Ross," Boren concluded.
Rick Ross is no stranger to legal actions. Most recently, two gospel singers accused him of sampling their "spiritually uplifting" song "I'm So Grateful" in his Grammy-nominated sex-and-drugs ode "3 Kings."
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