When it comes to establishing ownership of particular works of art, music, film, dance, writing and theater, it can sometimes get really messy. Different artists will have similar ideas at the same time, as if there was something in the water that suddenly spawned greatness. Multiple musicians will build songs off of the same hook, or lyrical phrase, even though they've never met and are continents apart. Authors will write best-selling books with the same title, but completely different subject matter. It can lead to some serious confusion for everyone involved. But what happens when it's not your work that is eerily similar, but your name and persona? This is the issue that "Freeway" Rick Ross found himself faced with, when rap artist, Rick Ross, began to rise to popularity in the hip hop scene.
"Freeway" Rick Ross, also known as Ricky Donnell Ross, was born in Troup, Texas on May 3, 1960. He was first introduced to crack-cocaine when he was a teenager living in Los Angeles some time in the late 70s. An above-average tennis player, he hoped to go to college on an athletic scholarship. There was just one small problem. Ricky somehow made it through all 12 years of schooling without ever learning how to read. When his potential college suitors discovered this fact, every single one withdrew their interest and scholarship offers.
After his college plans fell through, one of Ricky's high school teachers suggested he start dealing drugs to make ends meet. He was good at it instantly. Pretty soon, he was outdistancing his teacher in terms of orders and profits. He began looking for a more direct source to purchase his cocaine from, and ended up hooking up with Oscar Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses Cantarero, a pair of Nicaraguan drug lords. He earned the nickname "Freeway Ricky" because he owned several properties along the Los Angeles Harbor Freeway.
At the height of his dealing, Ricky was selling $3 million in cocaine per day. Between 1982 and 1989, he is believed to have grossed $600 – $900 million in cocaine revenues, making $300 million in profit. Adjust that for inflation, and he was moving $2.5 billion and making $850 million.
Ricky had a major business operation spanning California, New York, Pennsylvania, New Orleans, Kansas, Oklahoma, the Carolinas, Washington, and Ohio, among many other locations. He poured the majority of his money into purchasing property, rather than living lavishly. He was worried that his mother would catch on to his less than ideal career choice if he suddenly started throwing money around. As with most drug dealers, it eventually all came crashing down. He was set up by his primary source, Oscar Danilo Blandon, and was arrested after attempting to buy 100 kilograms of cocaine from a federal agent. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1996. However, when it was revealed that Blandon was actually heavily involved with the CIA in the Iran-Contra scandal, and had given up Ross as part of an agreement to receive a reduced sentence of 2 years, Ross' sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years.
While still in prison, "Freeway" Rick Ross, began to hear rumblings about a rap artist named William Roberts II, who was calling himself Rick Ross. The rapper had taken on the persona of a former drug dealer who was now a rapper, and had signed with Warner Bros. Records. It should also be noted that prior to pursuing a career as a rap artist, William Roberts II spent 18 months in jail. But not in the way you are thinking. As much as Rick Ross wants the world today to believe he's a hardcore gangster, prior to becoming a full time rapper, he was a correctional officer at a prison in South Florida. Rick Ross initially denied the rumors that he was actually a former prison guard. He eventually had to admit the rumors were true, after The Smoking Gun was able to connect his social security number to an employment record at the Florida Department of Prisons.
When "Freeway" Rick Ross was released from prison in 2009, he did his best follow the path of the straight and narrow and get his life back on track. He was, for all intents and purposes, fully reformed. He was also not particularly pleased about someone using his name and likeness to sell records. The rapper Rick Ross had also grown a beard that looked eerily similar to what the elder Rick Ross had been known for back in the day. So, Freeway Ricky took the rap artist, Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music, and Jay Z (the rapper's mentor and producer) to court, suing for $10 million in damages and an injunction to force the rapper to use a different name.
His first lawsuit, issued on June 18, 2010 was dismissed a month later. He refiled in California state court, and the case was subsequently appealed to the higher court in 2011. A new trial date was set for May of 2012. Again, the case was dismissed. Then in July of 2012, the California State court motioned in favor of "Freeway" Rick Ross, and a new trial date was set. By this time, the case was known as "Freeway Rick Ross versus Rick Ross and Warner Music Group". On December 13, 2013, the court finally definitively ruled in favor of rap artist Rick Ross, and his right to keep using the name Rick Ross under the First Amendment.
The court's reasoning was two-fold. First, the court felt that "Freeway" Rick Ross took too long to file his initial lawsuit. He'd known about the rap artist since 2006, but didn't sue until 2010. Therefore, his decision to sue in 2010, was deemed "untimely". Secondly, the court did agree that there was evidence to suggest that the rap artist had created his performing persona based on "Freeway" Rick Ross. However, the court had to uphold the rap artist's right to use the Rick Ross name, because "using the name and certain details of an infamous criminal's life as basic elements, he created original artistic works". He was not, in fact, "an imposter seeking to profit solely off of the name and reputation of Rick Ross". In a nutshell, if you steal someone's identity secretly, that's identity theft. If you assume portions of someone's identity publicly, with the full knowledge of your audience and those around you, the court is okay with it. It's a fine line. It's probably safe to say that while Rick Ross might be popular in the hip hop community, he doesn't have any fans in the "Freeway" Rick Ross' household. It's got to be tough watching someone make millions off of a part of your life you are doing your best to put behind you. Especially if that person is a former correctional officer and you happen to be a former 20 year inmate!
What do you think of the Freeway Ricky Ross vs Rick Ross lawsuit? Should Rick Ross the rapper have chosen a new name? Do you respect him less knowing he doesn't really have any credibility as a gangster?