Chi Modu took some of the most iconic images of legendary rapper Notorious B.I.G standing in front of the World Trade Center in 1996 when Biggie was at the height of his fame.
But now the set of images taken by one of the most celebrated rap photographers of all time is at the center of a court case between the heirs of both parties.
Notorious BIG LLC, set up by the mother and wife of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a Biggie Smalls, asked a Los Angeles judge to stop Sophia Modu from selling merchandise with her late husband’s photos of the rapper, claiming it violates their right to publicity.
Earlier this year fellow rapper Snoop Dogg said that photographers shouldn’t own their photos of celebrties after a photographer sued another rapper, Nas, for posting a copyrighted image on Instagram. However, in this case, it is the subject suing the photographer.
Biggie’s estate accuses Modu of using the “rapper’s likeness” and licensing it on “snowboards, t-shirts, shower curtains, and NFTs.” Court documents show they supplied a picture of a snowboard with Modu’s images of Biggie.
The plaintiffs argue that it’s irrelevant that Modu is the registered copyright owner of the photographs because they claim that the likeness and name of Biggie Smalls appear in the photographs and subsequent merchandise which infringes on Notorious BIG LLC.
The estate goes on to say that, “Mr. and Mrs. Modu have caused and will continue to cause irreparable injury to BIG by diminishing the reputation of the Biggie brand, including the value of future endorsement and number of partnership opportunities available to BIG.”
Previous Photo Licensing Arrangement
There had never been an issue until Chi Modu sought more money from Biggie’s marketing company in 2018 after he discovered that it was making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the photos he licensed them but was receiving only $3,000 per photo per year.
Modu wanted a “livable wage” of approximately $100,000 per year from Biggie’s estate from the revenue of its lucrative licensing deals claiming that he had been underpaid for years, according to Hip Hop DX.
“I think the number was $100,000 that I say, but the reality is, that’s actually a small percentage of what’s being made,” Modu said at the time.
“And it’s not a very big number, but the whole point is, kind of the foundation of this case is the right of publicity has been abused. That’s the bottom line.”
The estate filed a lawsuit against Modu in California and called him a “parasite” because he was not given permission to use photos of Biggie in his portfolio or license the photos to snowboard companies.
“Usually the copyright holder sues people for infringement on their copyright,” Modu said.
“This is a situation where a subject is trying to sue a copyright holder for using their legally, federally, copyrighted creation. So, it’s completely backwards. And the main reason for the suit, it’s very clear to me, is to scare artists and creatives out of their rights.”
“Once I press that shutter, I’m the copyright holder. Copyright is a very powerful right and copyright is a federal right. It’s not a state right. Right of publicity is a state right, and it’s not even consistent from state to state.
“Copyright is honored in 100-plus countries around the world, so it’s very clear. Copyright gives the creator the first right to make copies of the work, distribute the work, display the work, publicly perform the work, and make derivatives of the work.
“Those are exclusive rights of the copyright holder. And what happens sometimes is the term ‘right of publicity,’ that’s the legal term that folks use. But another term people use for right of publicity is ‘name and likeness rights.’
“The problem with that language is that it confuses people. It makes them think that ‘Well, I control my name and likeness rights,’ and in fact, you don’t. You control your name and likeness rights around the content that you own and control yourself, but I control the copyright of an image I create of you.”
U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt hasn’t ruled on the hearing and has urged both parties to consider sitting down with a mediator to try to resolve their conflict.
Image credits: All photos via Notorious BIG vs Chi Modu complaint