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Image from Chi Modu Instagram account
Image from Chi Modu Instagram account

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Copyright holder of Biggie Smalls’ photos is being sued for unlawfully offering to sell products bearing his image and likeness

Heirs of hip-hop photographer Chi Modu and rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, are entangled in a legal battle since Modu started using his 1996 Biggie Smalls’ copyright-protected photo for a snowboard deal with a Swiss company.

Biggie’s estate, Notorious BIG LLC, has recently accused Modu of using the “rapper’s likeness” and licensing it for use on “snowboards, t-shirts, shower curtains, and NFTs.”

The estate, which was set up by the mother and wife of late Biggie Smalls, seeks to prevent Sophia Modu, wife of the late photographer, from selling merchandise featuring her husband’s photos, claiming it violates their right to publicity.

Even though Modu is the registered copyright owner of the photographs, the estate claims that it is irrelevant because Biggie Smalls' likeness and name appear in the photographs and subsequent merchandise, which is infringing on Notorious BIG LLC.

It also claims 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.”

Modu’s wife continues to sell Biggie-related products online at hiphopimages.com. The estate also discovered in 2021 that a series of products were available as NFTs on the Rarible website.

But the estate believes itself to be the sole owner of all property rights, including the right of publicity to the name, image, voice, signature, and likeness of Biggie, as well as certain trademark rights, the right of association, sponsorship and copyrights.

Citing a few examples of past cases in the suit, it said that even though Chi Modu is the legally registered copyright owner of the photographs used on the snowboard, it is not viable or even relevant to the use of Biggie’s name and likeness.

The rift began in 2018 when the photographer asked Biggie's marketing company to pay US$100,000 as a “living wage” for his work after discovering that it was making hundreds of thousands of dollars from the photos he licensed but only receiving $3,000 per photo per year.

The estate then sued Modu in California, claiming he used the rapper’s image to sell snowboards without permission. The estate also sued the Switzerland-based snowboard company YES. during the same time.

However, Modu’s wife claims that her husband had been licensing photos of BIG since the 1990s, including to the Wallace heirs’ own marketing company.

While filing a countersuit in 2020, photographer Modu had said: “Usually the copyright holder sues people for infringement on their copyright,” but in this situation “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,” he added.

The hearing has yet to be decided, but the judge has urged both parties to consider meeting with a mediator to try to resolve their dispute.

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