What We Can Learn from Ice Cube’s Trademark/Publicity Lawsuit Against Robinhood

Being the latest celebrity to try to protect his/her rights of publicity, Ice Cube (aka, O’Shea Jackson, Sr.) filed a lawsuit against Robinhood Financial, LLC and Robinhood Markets, Inc., financial services providers. On March 31, 2021, Ice Cube claimed Lanham Act (Trademark) violations, along with violations of California law, including misappropriation of likeness and unfair competition. This came after Ice Cube watched a digital ad containing his image and the modified version of one of his song lyrics, which he accuses was posted without his consent or knowledge.

Ice Cube claims that the Robinhood® website and app ran an unauthorized advertisement with a photo of Ice Cube with “Correct yourself, before you wreck yourself,” an altered version of the lyrics from his hit song, “Check Yo Self.” The complaint also alleges that Ice Cube wasn’t chosen at random, and that Robinhood targeted the rapper “in an act of unmitigated gall and transparent retribution.” The complaint states, “Just as Robinhood’s recent well-known conduct has resulted in Congressional investigations and numerous class action lawsuits, so too has it stolen and diminished the hard-earned image and brand of Ice Cube, one of the most prominent Black voices in America.”

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary and punitive damages, but mostly stopping Robinhood from using Ice Cube’s image. However, according to a report on Yahoo! Finance, a Robinhood representative said they did not use Ice Cube’s image incorrectly, stating, “The image was licensed and used for non-commercial, editorial purposes in connection with a blog article.”

In publicity cases such as this one, the celebrity looks to the value of their image as a brand. In Ice Cube’s case, with over 30 years as a musician, actor, entrepreneur and social justice activist, his name and image are valuable assets. Ice Cube’s fame and respect in the public eye make him an appealing spokesperson.

What can you learn from Publicity Lawsuits?

A celebrity’s persona is important to them because who and what they affiliate themselves with conceivably enhances and grows their brand or potentially has the opposite effect. For this reason, extreme caution should be used before using a celebrity’s name, likeness or image in any public communication without their permission. Celebrity’s names are often trademarked for products and services usage and exploiting them without their knowledge and approval could not only be a false association or a violation of a right of publicity, but also trademark infringement.

As a rule of thumb, getting permission directly instead of asking for forgiveness at a later date is highly recommended. When you can get authority upfront you protect your company’s and advertising firms’ integrity and can keep highly visible lawsuits at bay because falsely implying an endorsement by a celebrity is consequently committing unfair and deceptive trade practices. Seeking permission is also recommended for social media or online digital ads when using celebrity likenesses, like cute memes, since an advertisement is commercial speech and is still using the celebrity’s brand to increase recognition in their product/service. Unauthorized use of this sort can also infringe on copyrights of the artist/studio/photographer of the image itself. Like companies, advertisers should also not do indirectly what they can’t do directly, as it would most likely not be an effective legal defense to have an advertiser’s agencies improperly use a celebrity brand. Advertisers are expected to be accountable for their actions and can be held responsible for agency conduct when permission has not been received in advance of releasing the advertisement, no matter what form it is in.

Whether Ice Cube’s persona was used correctly in Robinhood’s case is still up to the courts to decide. It’s a reminder to companies and advertising agencies of the reality of what can happen when using a celebrity’s persona in a way not approved by the celebrity. The lesson here is that there’s no substitute for asking permission to use third party content.

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