Rapper’s estate challenges with Lanham Act and right of publicity suit

Biggie Won’t Slip

It’s difficult to name a recording artist who has earned more posthumous success and influence than Christopher Wallace, the Brooklyn-born rapper better known as Biggie Smalls, Biggie and The Notorious B.I.G.

According to Billboard magazine, in the wake of his death, “there won’t be a permutation of hip-hop that doesn’t carry The Notorious B.I.G.’s DNA.” Virtuosic flow, lyrical genius, sheer storytelling prowess – he’s regularly named the greatest MC of all time by contemporary practitioners and his musical inheritors, all of whom internalized his technical innovations.

All this adulation is based on a body of work assembled before Wallace turned 25 years old. His second album, released 16 days after he was gunned down by unknown assailants in 1997, was certified diamond within three years of its release.

Mo Money, Mo Problems

“Unfortunately, when an artist’s work has touched people so significantly, there are often usurpers that want to capitalize on that connection,” laments a recent complaint filed by Biggie’s estate in the Central District of California.“ A strong brand attracts parasites that attempt to create profits through no work of their own, based on the popularity of and love for an artist.”

BIG is the somewhat obviously named company that controls the late rapper’s licensing and intellectual property; it was founded by Wallace’s mother, Voletta, and his wife, singer Faith Evans, who still hold the reins. BIG is accusing Yes Snowboards, a Swiss snowboard manufacturer doing business internationally, of using the rapper’s image without permission in products including “posters and prints [and] other artwork.”

The Takeaway

The image in question is a photograph, taken by hip-hop photographer Chi Modu, of Wallace standing in front of another New York City icon, the World Trade Center; Modu is also named as a defendant in the suit for, presumably, collaborating with Yes. on the alleged offending products.

BIG is accusing Yes of unfair competition and false advertising under the Lanham Act, trademark infringement, violation of California’s unfair competition law, violation of New Jersey’s right of publicity law, and unjust enrichment.

According to one outlet, the product that sparked the suit was a snowboard printed with Biggie’s likeness, although this use is not named specifically in the suit; the complaint references posters, prints, and other allegedly unauthorized and infringing artwork. If true, Yes seems to have pulled any such product from its website along with other snowboards it allegedly sold as part of the same campaign with images of also-deceased hip-hop icons Tupac Shakur, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E.