The Legal Beat: Cardi B’s Bizarre Trial – Plus Gunna, Ed Sheeran & More

This is The Legal Beat, a weekly column about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between.

This week: Cardi B goes to trial in a weird case over a bawdy album cover, Gunna is again refused bond in Atlanta, Ed Sheeran warns that a copyright ruling might “strangle” future songwriters and much more.

THE BIG STORY: Cardi Heads to Trial Over Bawdy Album Cover

In one of the weirder cases you’ll ever hear about, Cardi B is headed to a federal courthouse today to defend against claims that the cover of her debut mixtape “humiliated” a man named Kevin Brophy, who alleges he was unwittingly photoshopped into the artwork to make it look like he was performing oral sex on the now-superstar.

Yes, you read that right. And I didn’t even tell you yet that the entire thing hinges on a giant back tattoo featuring “a tiger battling a snake.”

As Cardi’s star was rising in 2016, she released Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 with a provocative cover – an image of her swigging a beer, staring into the camera … with a man’s head between her legs. The actual guy in the image was a model (who consented to the whole thing), but the giant tattoo on his back belonged to Brophy (who didn’t). Unbeknownst to Cardi, a freelance graphic designer had typed “back tattoos” into Google Image, found one that fit, and Photoshopped it onto the model’s body. It apparently didn’t occur to him that he would need anyone’s approval to do so.

Years later, the two will now square off before a jury over whether the image broke the law, and whether Cardi herself is to blame.

Brophy claims the star and others violated his right of publicity by using his likeness without his consent, and also invasion of his privacy by casting him in a “false light” that was “highly offensive” to a reasonable person. He claims he was “devastated, humiliated and embarrassed” by the cover.

Cardi says those accusations are “sheer fantasy” and “vastly overblown.” Her legal team says Cardi had no idea Brophy’s image was being used, and that he’s just suing her in an effort to “cash in the legal equivalent of a lotto ticket.” But their chief argument is even simpler: That nobody would have ever recognized a relatively unknown person based on a cropped image of his back tattoo.

“No matter how much plaintiff may be obsessed with the notion, the fact remains that it is not  ‘him,’ or a ‘likeness of him,’ or ‘his identity’ in the cover image,” Cardi’s lawyers wrote.

Cardi is expected to testify at some point, with a verdict expected by the end of the week or early next week. We’ll keep you posted over at when the news drops.

Other top stories this week…

VLOGGER BETTER HAVE MY MONEY – Elsewhere in Cardi-world, a federal judge ruled that Tasha K – a gossip blogger who made salacious claims about the star – must either immediately pay up on an almost $4 million defamation verdict or secure a bond covering the entire amount. Tasha is currently appealing the verdict and wanted to pause the judgement while she does so, but Cardi’s lawyers warned last month that the YouTuber had bragged about taking steps to “insulate herself” from the huge damages award, and might use the delay to avoid paying entirely.

GUNNA DENIED BOND YET AGAIN – For a third time, a Georgia judge refused to release Gunna from jail ahead of his January trial in the sweeping case against Young Thug and others accused of operating a violent gang in the Atlanta area. The order came after prosecutors claimed to have text messages in which a co-defendant in the sprawling case offered to “whack someone” on the rapper’s behalf, prompting the judge to say that he had the “same concerns” about the potential for witness tampering. But just a day later, Gunna’s lawyers cried foul, claiming the alleged smoking gun text actually had “nothing to do with witness intimidation” and had been used to mislead the court.

SHOTS FIRED OVER POWERHOUSE MUSIC LAWYER – In an exclusive interview with Billboard’s Frank DiGiacomo, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner blasted the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for its upcoming induction of powerhouse music lawyer Allen Grubman, saying it was “about money and bending to the ego of a music business power broker.” Grubman is one of the most powerful attorneys in the industry, counting Bruce Springsteen, Lizzo, The Weeknd, Lil Nas X, Lady Gaga and other stars as clients, as well as major music companies and digital streamers. But Wenner said he decided to speak out because he believes Grubman clearly doesn’t fit the criteria: “Grubman has made no contribution of any kind, by any definition, to the creative development or the history of rock & roll.”

WARHOL & PRINCE AT SCOTUS – More than three decades after Andy Warhol‘s death and six years after Prince‘s sudden passing, the two pop culture icons took center stage at U.S. Supreme Court , as the justices heard arguments in a major copyright case. At issue in the dispute is whether the late Warhol made a legal “fair use” of a photograph of Prince when he used it as the basis for a set of his distinctive screen prints – or merely infringed the copyrights of Lynn Goldsmith, the photographer who snapped it. During the proceedings, the justices grappled with tough questions, like what exactly is necessary to “transform” a copyrighted work into a fair use. In a lighter moment, Justice Clarence Thomas disclosed that he had been a fan of Prince’s music “in the ’80s,” to which Justice Elena Kagan asked “no longer?” As the room erupted in laughter, Thomas replied enigmatically: “Only on Thursday night.”

ED SHEERAN WARNS OF ‘STRANGLED’ SONGWRITERS – The pop star’s lawyers asked a federal judge to rethink a recent decision that said the singer must face a trial over whether “Thinking Out Loud” infringes Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get It On.” The decision came two weeks after Judge Louis Stanton refused to toss the case out, ruling that a jury would have to decide Sheeran’s argument that he only borrowed basic, unprotectable musical “building blocks.” In the new filing, the star’s lawyers warned the judge that forcing musicians to face trials over such material would have a chilling effect on the industry and threaten to “strangle creation” by future songwriters. In technical terms, Sheeran’s attorneys want the judge to either undo the ruling entirely, or allow them to immediately appeal it before he faces trial.

SLACKER HIT WITH HUGE UNPAID ROYALTY BILL – A federal judge ruled that streaming platform Slacker owes nearly $10 million in unpaid performance royalties to record labels and artists. SoundExchange, which collects streaming royalties for sound recordings, sued Slacker and parent company LiveOne in June, claiming they had refused to pay millions over a five-year period. This week, Judge André Birotte Jr. made it official, ordering that Slacker pay $9,765,396 in unpaid royalties and late fees. Importantly, he also banned the company from using the so-called statutory license – a key copyright provision that allows radio-like streamers to get easy access to licenses at a fixed rate. Now, Slacker will presumably need to negotiate direct licenses from rights holders for sound recordings, similar to what on-demand streaming services like Spotify must do.

Bill Donahue