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Ice Cube’s Robinhood dispute back in court

By | Published on Monday 20 September 2021

Ice Cube

Ice Cube’s legal squabble with the Robinhood stock-trading app was back in court last week, with the core debate unchanged: is a financial news service published by Robinhood actually advertising masquerading as editorial?

The rapper sued the financial services firm over an article it posted to its Robinhood Snacks news website earlier this year. The article was accompanied by a picture of Ice Cube and the caption “Correct yourself before you wreck yourself”, a play on the lyric, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self” from his 1993 track ‘Check Yo Self’.

In his lawsuit, the rapper argued that the use of his photo on that article implied he was endorsing the company. And, he added in no uncertain terms in his lawsuit, he didn’t want anyone thinking he had any connections to “an unscrupulous and predatory conglomerate that professes to be a financial services company for the everyday person [but which is] in truth … a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

That implied endorsement infringed Ice Cube’s trademark and publicity rights, the lawsuit claimed. But Robinhood countered that it had properly licensed the photo from the agency that owned the copyright in it, and its use of the image in an editorial context did not imply any sort of endorsement of its products. Therefore there was no trademark and publicity rights case to answer.

In June, judge Laurel Beeler dismissed the case, stating: “This court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing because the plaintiff did not plausibly plead that Robinhood’s use of his identity suggested his endorsement of Robinhood’s products”.

That conclusion was in part because the judge felt Robinhood’s news service was editorial rather than advertising. She wrote: “The plaintiff characterises the newsletter as an advertisement, not a newsletter. But he attaches the newsletter, which is demonstrably not an advertisement”.

However, despite the dismissal, Ice Cube was given the opportunity to submit an amended complaint, which is why the whole dispute was back before the same judge last week.

According to Law360, the rapper’s legal rep Michael Taitelman again argued that, while Robinhood Snacks is on one level an editorial service, it exists to market and sell the company’s other services. Which makes it advertising.

And the tone employed in that editorial service is part of the finance firm’s bid to “be the most culturally relevant [stock-trading] app, which exactly ties to their use of a culturally relevant person, Ice Cube, who is in the wheelhouse of the people they are trying to attract to the platform. They wouldn’t have used Ice Cube[‘s image] if there wasn’t a connection to what they were trying to promote”.

Needless to say, Robinhood’s attorney, Mitchell J Langberg, insisted that Beeler got it right when she dismissed the case in June. The way his client used the Ice Cube photo “most clearly isn’t an endorsement”. He then added that – even if you did consider the new service to be advertising – which it isn’t – but even if you did – “the use of that photo isn’t even an endorsement – nobody’s pointing to a product [or] suggesting that someone get a product”.

Beeler mused during the session that she recognised that Robinhood Snacks was economically motivated. However, is that enough to see it as advertising, or the use of the Ice Cube photo as endorsement?

The judge is now considering both side’s arguments before ruling on Robinhood’s latest motion for dismissal. Even if Beeler does let the case proceed, there are still First Amendment free speech arguments to be had.