The ongoing feud between Miami rapper Rick Ross and 50 Cent has reached a new plateau. Last Wednesday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2018 decision that 50 Cent could not sue Ross over the latter's 2015 remix of 50 Cent's 2003 hit "In Da Club."
Though the two rappers have a long history of beefs and studio disses, the legal battle sparked in 2015 when Ross rapped over 50 Cent's song on a mixtape, Renzel Remixes, to promote his own then-upcoming album, Black Market.
50 Cent (born Curtis James Jackson III) sued Ross (born William Leonard Roberts II and raised in Carol City) in a Connecticut federal court, alleging that Ross used the sample without permission. He was seeking $2 million in damages.
In 2018, a federal judge dismissed the suit, finding 50 Cent's claims invalid because the artist owned neither the copyright nor his publicity rights at the time of the recording — his former label, Shady/Aftermath Records, did.
Had the higher court reversed the verdict, such a ruling might have created unnecessary obstacles for rappers who record mixtapes, according to Ross' legal team, Leron E. Rogers, Jonathan D. Goins, and John T. Rose of the law firm Lewis Brisbois.
"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," Rogers explains, "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."
In hip-hop music, sampling is a pillar of production.
Ross' lawyers further argued that because federal copyright laws take priority over state publicity laws, the record label would have to file a lawsuit on behalf of the artist. But the appeals court concluded that 50 Cent in fact owned a portion of his publicity rights after his contract to Shady/Aftermath Records ended in 2014.
Goins, who was bought on for his expertise in intellectual property, says the publicity-rights lawsuit was filed because 50 Cent couldn't sue on the grounds of copyright infringement, even though that was the essence of his complaint.
"To his credit, it's a respected strategy, because we all have our brands, and we want to protect our persona rights, and he was a partial resident in Connecticut, so that's how he was able to sue in that venue," Goins explains. "The reason why this was such a precedential ruling is because the Second Circuit [had] never made a ruling on this particular issue."
Ultimately, the appeals court affirmed the lower court's dismissal of the original lawsuit on the grounds 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 because federal copyright laws took precedence over 50 Cent's publicity-rights claim.
The two lawyers also doubt the label will refile a copyright-infringement complaint on 50 Cent's behalf. Universal Music Group, the umbrella label for Interscope/Shady/Aftermath Records and Def Jam — the label to which Rick Ross is signed — stands to gain if Ross' remix rekindles fan interest in the original song.
"The song is over ten years removed. If anything, it will help Shady/Aftermath more than it would hurt them," sums up attorney John T. Rose. "It's been a long time coming, but we always knew this would be the outcome."
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Attorneys for 50 Cent did not respond to requests for comment about the ruling.
The two rappers have never gotten along, but their mutual animosity took a sharp turn for the worse in 2008, when 50 Cent published a sex tape he'd overdubbed with audio commentary aimed at Ross. Lastonia Leviston, the woman depicted on the tape having sex with her then-boyfriend, had a child with Ross. Leviston sued 50 Cent for invasion of privacy and won a multimillion-dollar judgment in 2015.
That matter, however, lives on: 50 Cent sued his own lawyers for malpractice, seeking $32 million and roping in Ross once again.
That case, delayed by the coronavirus, is still pending.