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The Legal Beat: Rap On Trial? Not In California – Plus Triller, ‘Analog’ Scandal & More

Also in this week's legal recap: A new ruling in the Michael Jackson "imitator" lawsuit, Fetty Wap pleads guilty to a drug charge and much more.

This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter 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: California lawmakers pass first-of-its-kind legislation restricting when prosecutors can use rap lyrics as evidence, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland say Triller still owes them $28 million from buying Verzuz, an ongoing scandal over “all analog” vinyl records moves from the court of public opinion to a federal courthouse, and much more.

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THE BIG STORY: California Restricts Rap In The Courtroom

When prosecutors in Atlanta rolled out a sweeping racketeering indictment against Young Thug and Gunna in May, they heavily cited the rappers’ own music to make their case. Introduced by a DA who made no apologies for doing so – “the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using [music] as evidence if it is such” – the charges against two of rap’s top young talents seemed like a new high water mark for a practice that activists and defense attorneys have long decried as unfair.

But just four months later, California is now suddenly on the verge of enacting new legislation that would sharply limit when prosecutors in the largest state in the country can use rap lyrics to charge and convict the artists who wrote them.

The proposed law, AB 2799, would effectively ban any form of “creative expression” from the courtroom unless prosecutors can show that it’s directly relevant to the facts of the case and won’t “inject racial bias into the proceedings.” It would also require that courts consider testimony on the particular genre of expression being cited by prosecutors – a nod to the fact that experts say hip hop’s unique conventions are often weaponized when lyrics are cited in court.

The bill passed the state Senate last week and was approved by the state Assembly on Monday, sending it to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for signature.

With the passage of California’s law, the next question is whether other jurisdictions will follow the Golden State’s lead. New York’s state Senate passed similar legislation in May but it failed to get a vote in the Assembly; lawmakers in Albany have vowed to re-introduce the bill next session. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. have also introduced similar restrictions for federal prosecutors, but it faces a far less certain outcome in a sharply-divided U.S. Congress.

For more news on the California’s newly-passed bill, stay tuned to Billboard this week for more upcoming coverage.

Other top stories this week…

BIG TROUBLE AT TRILLER – Eighteen months after Timbaland and Swizz Beatz sold their smash hit Verzuz livestream series to Triller, the two filed a blockbuster lawsuit accusing the social media platform of failing to pay them a whopping $28 million that they’re still owed from the deal. Verzuz – a cultural phenomenon launched during COVID-19 – features high-profile showdowns between top artists and draws millions per episode, but Tim and Swizz says Triller has “failed and refused to respond to plaintiffs’ written notice and demand for payment.” In response, Triller said it had paid the pair $50 million, but that the company believed the duo had not yet met certain required thresholds for additional payments: “We hope it is nothing more than a misunderstanding driven by lawyers.”

MJ ESTATE CAN’T BEAT FAKE VOCALS CASE – California’s Supreme Court ruled against Michael Jackson’s estate and Sony Music in a lawsuit over three songs that allegedly featured a “Jackson imitator” instead of the star himself. Siding with a fan who claimed the 2010 posthumous album Michael violated state consumer protection laws by falsely labeling the disputed songs as performed by Jackson, the high court ruled that the First Amendment did not shield the estate and Sony from such a case. The ruling was a bit moot, since it came weeks after the estate pulled the songs from streaming platforms and settled the case. But it’s still binding precedent on how California advertising laws apply to music and other “expressive works.”

VINYL “ANALOG” SCANDAL HEADS TO COURT – Vinyl producer Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab was hit with a proposed class action over recent revelations that its expensive “all analog” reissues were actually partially created using digital methods. For the past month, those accusations against MoFi have caused what the Washington Post called “something of an existential crisis” for the world of high-end record collectors. In late July, MoFi apologized for using “vague language” and vowed “a policy of 100% transparency,” but it apparently wasn’t enough to stave off litigation: “When defendant began using a digital mastering process in its records as opposed to purely analog, it inherently produced less valuable records … yet still charged the higher price.”

FETTY WAP COPS TO DRUG CHARGE – The “Trap Queen” star pleaded guilty to taking part in what prosecutors call “a multimillion-dollar bicoastal drug distribution organization.” The rapper, whose real name is Willie Junior Maxwell II, was arrested in October, charged along with several others with conspiracy to distribute and possess heroin, fentanyl and cocaine across Long Island. Following the guilty plea, prosecutors say he faces a minimum five-year sentence, but that guidelines call for as many as 9 years.

MEGAN LOBS MORE BOMBS AT LABEL – Megan Thee Stallion filed an updated version of her lawsuit against record label 1501 Certified Entertainment – one that tacked on a demand for $1 million in damages and strongly implied that the company played a role in the leak of her new album Traumazine. Stallion sued back in February, claiming 1501 was unfairly refusing to count her previous release as an “album”; the label quickly countersued, saying Stallion’s songs clearly didn’t meet the definition of an album. In her new demand for damages, Megan said the label had “systematically failed” to pay royalties. She also said she had been forced to hire “forensic investigators” after her album was leaked only a few days after” she sent it to the label.

 A$AP ROCKY SAYS HE’S NOT GUILTY IN SHOOTING – The rapper pleaded not guilty to charges that he fired a gun at former A$AP Mob member Terell Ephron during an altercation last fall in Hollywood – the same charges that saw the rapper arrested in April at LAX as he returned home from after a vacation in Barbados with girlfriend Rihanna. Prosecutors say a heated discussion in November 2021 led the rapper to point a semi-automatic handgun at Ephron, a former friend and collaborator better known as A$AP Relli. In another confrontation a short time later, Rocky allegedly fired the gun twice in Ephron’s direction.

R. KELLY TRIAL CONTINUES – The first week of the disgraced singer’s second sexual abuse trial wrapped up with blockbuster testimony from an unnamed woman who says she was the underage girl who appeared in an infamous videotape that surfaced in the mid-2000s. Kelly, already convicted last year of racketeering and sex trafficking, is now facing separate charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice over that tape and efforts to avoid criminal charges for it. The trial, taking place in Chicago federal court, is expected to run for at least three more weeks.

The best of the rest…

-Mattel filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the maker of Rap Snacks, alleging its Nicki Minaj-branded “Barbie-Que Honey Truffle” potato chips violate the toymaker’s rights in the famous Barbie doll. (Reuters)

-Attorneys for Post Malone asked a federal judge to severely sanction an artist who claims he helped write the rapper’s hit song “Circles,” accusing the artist hid crucial text messages that contradict his claims. Post’s attorneys say the misconduct is so egregious that the case should be thrown out entirely. (Law360)