'Freeway' Ricky Ross Taking Battle Over Rapper Rick Ross to Appeals Court

Freeway Ricky Ross Rick Ross Split - H 2013
Patrick Bastien; Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Freeway Ricky Ross Rick Ross Split - H 2013

What's the connection between a former drug kingpin, a mega-selling rap artist and the face of a man familiar to coffee drinkers everywhere?

The answer is determining the outcome of a splashy legal dispute.

On Wednesday, a judge rejected claims made by "Freeway" Ricky Ross, who ran a notorious drug empire that covered Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s, against Warner Bros. Records over the career of hip-hop star Rick Ross.

The first Ross says the second Ross (born William Leonard Roberts II) stole his name and likeness, with the help of Jay-Z and others in the music industry.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, who was released from prison in 2009 on good behavior and now counsels youth, he's been having trouble convincing a judge that he brought his claims soon enough over a rapper who has been around a decade. That's where the face of coffee drinkers comes in.

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In 2002, California school teacher Russell Christoff was standing in line at Home Depot when he noticed his face on a jar of Taster's Choice instant coffee. Before he was a teacher, Christoff was a model who was paid $250 to pose for a photograph in 1986. The photo would have slipped into total obscurity had it not been for the fact that Nestle, makers of Taster's Choice, obtained it and slapped it onto its jars as well as newspaper coupons and magazine ads in 22 countries.

Christoff sued Nestle and won more than $15 million at a jury trial. Then, the case went on appeal over the issue of whether he had brought his claims soon enough. Under California's rights of publicity statute, claims are supposed to be made within two years of first publication of the objectionable material.

The case divided the entertainment community: The MPAA supported Nestle; the actors guilds supported Christoff.

In 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that something known as the "single publication rule" applied -- for example, if this Hollywood Reporter article is re-released several years from now, the clock on the statute of limitations for those who wish to sue over it starts ticking today and is not reset. However, the Supreme Court offered some room for Christoff because images reused on multiple occasions in different media for various purposes might not fit the meaning of the single-publication rule. The case was remanded to a lower court to explore.

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Back to the current case.

The rapper Rick Ross already was famous in 2005, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rita Miller has been skeptical that "Freeway" Ross' claims that the hip-hop star stole his name to glam onto the gangster culture was brought soon enough. In rejecting claims against Universal Music (whose label first had a deal with the rapper) and now Warner Bros. Records, the judge has applied the "single publication" rule against the plaintiff's protests.

As the judge noted earlier in this case, in "Christoff, they were changing the label and putting it on different products, so the label one day the guy looked old. … It's not the same as someone representing 'I am badass Ricky Ross.' That's the same over and over again."

"Freeway" Ross now is preparing for the battle in an appeals court.

"California Appeals Court briefs are due in a few weeks," he tells THR. "The judge believes that even a new contract still falls under single publication; our position is that it is republication as in Nestle v. [Christoff]. We feel good about our case. This is classic republication as to all defendants there was consistently new music, management decisions and product made. The statute of limitations was never meant to be used to hide defendants actively infringing with new decisions and campaigns."

Email: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner