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OFF BEAT: Stage name protected under First Amendment

December 30, 2013 - 3:15pm

A convicted cocaine dealer cannot sue a rapper for having a similar stage name because the musician’s persona and name are protected by the First Amendment, a California appellate court has ruled.

William Leonard Roberts II performs as Rick Ross, and his music often includes “fictional accounts of selling cocaine,” court records show.

The similarly named Ricky D. Ross ran a “cocaine-dealing enterprise” in the 1980s that sold as much as $3 million in drugs per day at its height, according to court records.

Mr. Ross was arrested in 1989 and served “lengthy sentences” for his drug-dealing activities, records show. While in prison in 2006, Mr. Ross found out that Mr. Roberts was performing under the Rick Ross stage name and sent Mr. Roberts a cease-and-desist letter that went unacknowledged.

In 2010, Mr. Ross sued Mr. Roberts, his record label and associated entities, alleging that Mr. Roberts misappropriated his name and identity for financial benefit. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled against Mr. Ross in 2012, finding that his claim was not filed in a timely manner. Mr. Ross, who was released from prison in 2009, appealed.

In its unanimous ruling Dec. 23, the California Court of Appeals found that Mr. Roberts’ music added “significant transformative elements to the base components of plaintiff’s name and identity,” and that “the rapper ‘Rick Ross’ is a highly altered, essentially fantasized version of plaintiff.”

“The resemblance is one ‘raw material’ upon which the story is based, but 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,” the court said in ruling that Mr. Roberts’ stage persona is protected under the First Amendment.