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Robinhood Checked but Not Wrecked: False Association Suit by Rapper Ice Cube Dismissed

Rapper and actor Ice Cube sued the online trading platform Robinhood alleging false association, misappropriation of publicity rights, and unfair competition based on Robinhood’s use of Ice Cube’s image and a paraphrased lyric from his single, “Check yo self.”
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What to Know

  • Rapper and actor Ice Cube sued the online trading platform Robinhood alleging false association, misappropriation of publicity rights, and unfair competition based on Robinhood’s use of Ice Cube’s image and a paraphrased lyric from his single, “Check yo self.”
  • In June 2021, a magistrate judge found that such use did not suggest Ice Cube’s endorsement of Robinhood, and the case was accordingly dismissed based on a lack of standing.

Background

In March 2021, Robinhood disseminated a newsletter featuring an article discussing market correction. The article made several cultural references, amongst which was a reference to the lyric “check yourself, before you wreck yourself” from Ice Cube’s single, “Check yo self”- Ice Cube’s alleged “catchphrase” - alongside an image of the rapper. Ice Cube subsequently sent a cease and desist letter to Robinhood, stating that he did not authorize the use of his image and catchphrase. When Robinhood allegedly continued to use Ice Cube’s image and catchphrase, Ice Cube filed suit in the Northern District Court of California seeking injunctive relief and damages, based on false association, misappropriation of publicity rights, and unfair competition in violation of federal and state law.

In filing suit, Ice Cube relied in part on analogous cases such as the 1992 9th Circuit case, Waits v. Frito-Lay, in asserting that the use of Ice Cube’s “distinctive” identity and celebrity status implied his endorsement of Robinhood, and that this unauthorized endorsement constituted an injury in fact.

The Dismissal

In response, Robinhood filed a Motion to Dismiss alleging, among other things, that Ice Cube did not establish an injury in fact because he did not sufficiently plead his celebrity status, that he was deprived of compensation, or that consumers were misled by Robinhood’s uses. Therefore, Robinhood argued, Ice Cube did not have standing to sue.

While the Court found that Ice Cube sufficiently pleaded his celebrity status and economic injury, it agreed that Ice Cube “did not allege how Robinhood’s use of his identity created the [misperception] that Ice Cube sponsored, endorsed, or is affiliated with Robinhood.” In support of its finding, the Court noted that the Robinhood newsletter had a “breezy, colloquial tone” and did not function as an advertisement that would make consumers think Ice Cube endorsed Robinhood. It further noted that Robinhood’s uses of Ice Cube’s image and catchphrase served merely as an “illustrat[ion] of an article about market corrections...[and did] not suggest [Ice Cube] endorsed Robinhood.”

Ultimately, the Court agreed with Robinhood that Ice Cube “did not plausibly allege that the use of his identity was endorsement, [meaning] he does not have standing,” and accordingly dismissed the suit. However, the Court provided a 21-day window for Ice Cube to amend and refile the complaint. As of June 25, 2021, an amended complaint has not been filed.

Takeaways

While celebrity imaging in internal newsletters, and related public-facing communications, may seem relatively innocuous, such uses are not without risk. Companies should take this opportunity to ensure they have the appropriate licenses to use a celebrity’s name, image, persona, or other personal attributes in their marketing materials.  Companies should also be careful to prepare appropriate endorsement guidelines to govern marketing materials and social media use.

Contacts

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