When Cardi B released her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 back in March 2016, she used an album cover that, ahem, grabbed plenty of attention.
The image featured the then-rising star taking a swig of a large beer, staring directly into the camera with her legs spread wide. Between them, she was holding a man’s head in her hands, while he appeared to perform oral sex on her.
The man in the image was a model who had consented to the photoshoot, but a massive tattoo on his back (a tiger battling a snake) wasn’t actually his. 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.
Six years later, Cardi will head to trial Tuesday in a civil lawsuit filed by Kevin Brophy, the California man whose tattoo was superimposed onto the Gangsta Bitch cover. The trial, expected to run about a week, will feature the star herself taking the witness stand. Fresh off winning a huge verdict against a blogger who told “disgusting lies” about her, Cardi will now find herself on the other side of the courtroom.
Seeking millions in damages, Brophy claims the superstar exploited his identity in a “humiliating and provocatively sexual way to launch her career.” But Cardi’s attorneys say those accusations are “sheer fantasy,” since nobody would have even been able to tell it was him. Brophy, they say, is “trying to cash in the legal equivalent of a lotto ticket.”
“Humiliated and Appalled”
In October 2017, Brophy filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court against Cardi (real name Belcalis Almánzar), claiming that he had been “shocked, outraged, humiliated, and appalled” when friends notified him about the mixtape cover.
“He has had to face uncomfortable comments, questions, and ridicule, from community members and family,” Brophy’s lawyers wrote at the time. “His family dynamic has been adversely affected, and his work and professional life have been unalterably damaged by his having to explain this unconsented-to, offensive, and malicious use of his image.”
In technical terms, Brophy accused Cardi of two specific acts of wrongdoing: misappropriating his likeness for commercial benefit – violating what’s known as his “right of publicity” – and invasion of his privacy by casting him in a “false light” that was “highly offensive” to a reasonable person. The lawsuit asked for $5 million in damages.
In addition to naming Cardi herself as a defendant, the case also named her company, Washpoppin Inc., and KSR Group, the company owned by her former manager firm Klenord “Shaft” Raphael. The case notably did not name Timm Gooden, the designer who actually copy-and-pasted Brophy’s back tattoo onto the cover.
A “Transformative” Use?
Seeking to have the case tossed out without a trial, attorneys for Cardi argued (among other things) that the Gangsta Bitch cover made “transformative fair use” of Brophy’s likeness – a key defense that would have afforded them the protection of the First Amendment.
They claimed the designer used “only a very limited portion” of the original image as part of new, larger creative work, and had clearly not done so in any sort of effort to capitalize on Brophy’s identity.
But in December 2020, Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled that argument would need to be decided by a jury. He said there was no dispute that Gooden had made “some changes,” but also that “significant elements of plaintiff’s tattoo remain untouched in the final album cover.”
“A reasonable jury in this case could conclude that there are insufficient transformative or creative elements on the [album] cover to constitute a transformative use of Plaintiff’s tattoo,” the judge wrote at the time. “Most significantly, defining elements including the tiger and snake remain virtually unchanged.”
“It Is Not Him”
In addition to renewing that fair use argument, Cardi’s lawyers have plenty of other defenses they can try at the upcoming trial. Chief among them is that she and the other defendants simply did not use Brophy’s likeness at all, since nobody would have recognized a relatively unknown person based on a cropped image of his back tattoo.
“The tattoo design itself, as ‘priceless’ as it may be to plaintiff, subjectively speaking, was only used in an anonymous manner, as a single building block, one small peripheral element, in a complex picture and scenario in which Cardi B is the focus and central figure,” Cardi’s lawyers wrote in a brief earlier this year.
“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,” they wrote. “It is simply a use of a small portion of a tattoo design, applied to the body of someone (young, Black, with hair) obviously not plaintiff (a middle-aged Caucasian with a shaved head).”
Lawyers for Brophy will try to counter that narrative. They plan to call witnesses, including both Brophy’s wife and the tattoo artist who inked him, to argue that the man was “immediately recognizable by the tattoo and that others recognized plaintiff’s likeness.” Brophy himself will take the witness stand to testify about discovering the image and the impact it had on him.
In addition to those witnesses and Cardi herself, other people taking the stand this week will likely include Gooden, the designer who created the image; Cardi’s former manager Klenord “Shaft” Raphael; and legal and business experts who can weigh in on the various issues in the case.
How Much Harm? The Money At Stake
If the jury holds Cardi and the other defendants liable on any of the claims they’re facing, jurors will then have choose how much to award Brophy in damages. His initial complaint asked for $5 million, but jurors will not simply award that; instead, they’ll wrangle with tough questions about how much he’s owed.
For starters, they’ll weigh how much emotional and reputational harm he’s suffered as a result of the wrongful use of his image. There’s no objective standard for such questions, and jurors can award what they believe is reasonable, leading to a wide range of potential outcomes based on how this week’s trial plays out.
On that front, Brophy says his “family life was negatively affected by stress and worry,” and that he was “devastated, humiliated and embarrassed” by his appearance on the cover. Cardi’s lawyers fire back such claims are “vastly overblown” and unsupported by any evidence, like proof that he or his family sought therapy or other treatment for their supposed mental injuries.
Jurors will also be tasked with trying to figure out how much profit from Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1 was directly linked to Brophy’s image, another source of potential damages. Earlier in the case, an expert witness provided by Brophy’s lawyers argued that all digital profits from Cardi’s mixtape (a total of $1.6 million) were fair game. But Judge Carney rejected that approach as “pure fantasy,” saying it did not appear that the image was the primary factor driving the mixtape’s revenue.
Separately, the jurors could also choose to award so-called punitive damages if they find the wrongdoing against Brophy to be particularly egregious, but that figure would be calculated in a future proceeding.
The Courtroom Fight Ahead
The trial, taking place at the U.S. federal courthouse in Santa Ana, will kick off with jury selection on Tuesday morning and is expected to run for four to five days. A verdict could be reached as early as Friday, but deliberations could stretch into next week.
Cardi and the other defendants will be represented by Peter Anderson, Jonathan Segal and other lawyers from the white-shoe firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, as well as by Lisa F. Moore of Moore Pequignot LLC, who represented Cardi in the defamation case in which she won the $4 million verdict earlier this year. For most of the case, Cardi was represented by attorney Alan G. Dowling, but Anderson, Segal and Moore stepped in at the last minute when Dowling backed out of the case in August due to serious health problems.
Brophy will be represented by attorney A. Barry Cappello, Lawrence J. Conlan and Wendy Welkom from the law firm Cappello & Noel LLP.