Rosa Parks files lawsuit against OutKast and LaFace Records

Rosa Parks v. LaFace Records, et al.

was a lawsuit filed in March 1999 on Rosa Parks' behalf against American hip-hop duo OutKast and LaFace Records, claiming that the group had illegally used Rosa Parks' name without her permission for the song "Rosa Parks", the most successful radio single of OutKast's 1998 album Aquemini. The song's chorus, which Parks' legal defense felt was disrespectful to Parks, is as follows: "Ah ha, hush that fuss / Everybody move to the back of the bus / Do you want to bump and slump with us / We the type of people make the club get crunk."[1]
The case was dismissed in November 1999 by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Hackett. In August 2000, Parks hired attorney Johnnie Cochran to help her appeal the district court's decision. Cochran argued that the song did not have First Amendment protection because, although its title carried Parks' name, its lyrics were not about her. However, U.S. District Judge Barbara Hackett upheld OutKast's right to use Parks' name in November 1999, and Parks took the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where some charges were remanded for further trial.
Parks' attorneys and caretaker, Elaine Steele, refiled in August 2004, and named BMG, Arista Records and LaFace Records as the defendants, asking for $5 billion in damages. (Also named as defendants were several parties not directly connected to the songs, including Barnes & Noble and Borders Group for selling the songs, and Gregory Dark and Braddon Mendelson, the director and producer, respectively, of the 1998 music video. The judge dismissed the music video producers from the case by the reason of "fraudulent joinder," as these defendants had no connection to the case and there was no justifiable reason for the plaintiff's attorneys to add them to the lawsuit.)
In October 2004, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh appointed Dennis Archer, a former mayor of Detroit and Michigan Supreme Court justice, as guardian of legal matters for Parks after her family expressed concerns that her caretakers and her lawyer were pursuing the case based on their own financial interests.[2] "My auntie would never, ever go to this length to hurt some young artists trying to make it in the world," Parks' niece Rhea McCauley said in an Associated Press interview. "As a family, our fear is that during her last days Auntie Rosa will be surrounded by strangers trying to make money off of her name."[3]
The lawsuit was settled April 15, 2005. In the settlement agreement, OutKast and their producer and recorded labels paid Parks an undisclosed cash settlement and agreed to work with the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in creating educational programs about the life of Rosa Parks. The record labels and OutKast admitted to no wrongdoing. It is not known whether Parks' legal fees were paid for from her settlement money or by the record companies.

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for civil-rights icon Rosa Parks to proceed with her lawsuit against rap group OutKast over a hit song with her name as its title. The justices let stand a U.S. appeals court ruling that reinstated Parks' claims against OutKast, LaFace Records, Arista Records and BMG.

Parks sued in 1999, claiming use of her name without permission constituted false advertising and infringed on her right to publicity. She also claimed it defamed her character and interfered with a business relationship. She had approved a collection of gospel recordings by various artists, released in 1995 and titled "A Tribute to Mrs. Rosa Parks."

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 1999, ruling that constitutional free-speech rights under the First Amendment covered the use of Parks' name. The appeals court upheld the dismissal of the claims of defamation and interference with a business relationship, but reinstated the rest of the lawsuit, saying the defendants needed to show some artistic reason for calling the song "Rosa Parks."

Attorneys for the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court, saying the appeals court unconstitutionally allowed public figures to use trademark and right-of-publicity laws to censor speech. However, the high court rejected the appeal without comment.

OutKast's "Rosa Parks" peaked at No. 19 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks in 1999.

JOHN D. HOLSCHUH, District Judge. This is a dispute over the name of a song. Rosa Parks is a civil rights icon who first gained prominence during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955. She brings suit against LaFace Records, a record producer, and OutKast, a "rap" (or "hip-hop") music duo, as well as several other named affiliates, for using her name as the title of their song, Rosa Parks. Parks contends that Defendants' use of her name constitutes false advertising under � 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. � 1125(a), and intrudes on her common law right of publicity under Michigan state law. Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Parks has failed to show any violation of the Lanham Act or her right of publicity. Defendants further argue that, even if she has shown such a violation, their First Amendment freedom of artistic expression should be a defense as a matter of law to each of these claims. Parks also contends that Defendants' conduct renders them liable under Michigan law for defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship; Defendants have also denied liability with respect to these claims.

Parks brought this action in a Michigan state court. Defendants subsequently removed the case to the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Following cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court denied Parks' motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment for Defendants. Parks now appeals the grant of summary judgment for Defendants.

For the reasons hereafter set forth, we believe that, with respect to Rosa Parks' claims under the Lanham Act and under the common law right of publicity, "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). We therefore conclude that the district court erred in granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment on those claims. We conclude, however, that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants on Rosa Parks' state law claims of defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship.


A. Facts

Rosa Parks is an historical figure who first gained prominence as a symbol of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950's and 1960's. In 1955, while riding in the front of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to yield her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of the bus as blacks were required to do by the then-existing laws requiring segregation of the races. A 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery flowed from that one event, which eventually became a catalyst for organized boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations all across the South. Her single act of defiance has garnered her numerous public accolades and awards, and she has used that celebrity status to promote various civil and human rights causes as well as television programs and books inspired by her life story. She has also approved a collection of gospel recordings by various artists entitled Verity Records Presents: A Tribute to Mrs. Rosa Parks (the "Tribute" album), released in 1995.

Defendants are OutKast, comprised of recording artists André "Dré" Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton; their record producers, LaFace, founded by and named after Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds;(1) and LaFace's record distributors, Arista Records and BMG Entertainment (collectively "Defendants"). In September 1998, Defendants released the album Aquemini. The album's first single release was a song titled Rosa Parks, described as a "hit single" by a sticker on the album. The same sticker that contained the name Rosa Parks also contained a Parental Advisory warning of "explicit content." J.A. at 60. Because, as later discussed, the critical issue in this case is a determination of the artistic relevance of the title, Rosa Parks, to the content of the song, the lyrics obviously must be considered in their entirety. They are as follows:

Ah ha, hush that fuss
Everybody move to the back of the bus
Do you wanna bump and slump with us
We the type of people make the club get crunk
Verse 1: (Big Boi)
Many a day has passed, the night has gone by
But still I find the time to put that bump off in your eye
Total chaos, for these playas, thought we was absent
We takin another route to represent the Dungeon Family
Like Great Day, me and my nigga decide to take the back way
We stabbing every city then we headed to that bat cave
A-T-L, Georgia, what we do for ya
Bull doggin hoes like them Georgetown Hoyas
Boy you sounding silly, thank my Brougham aint sittin pretty
Doing doughnuts round you suckas like then circles around titties
Damn we the committee gone burn it down
But us gone bust you in the mouth with the chorus now
Verse 2: (André)
I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game
To stimulate then activate the left and right brain
Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past your ass'll be a has what
Thats one to live by or either that one to die to
I try to just throw it at you determine your own adventure
Andre, got to her station here's my destination
She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my head for hours
Took a shower kinda sour cause my favorite group ain't comin with it
But I'm witcha you cause you probably goin through it anyway
But anyhow when in doubt went on out and bought it
Cause I thought it would be jammin but examine all the flawsky-wawsky
Awfully, it's sad and it's costly, but that's all she wrote
And I hope I never have to float in that boat
Up shit creek it's weak is the last quote
That I want to hear when I'm goin down when all's said and done
And we got a new joe in town
When the record player get to skippin and slowin down
All yawl can say is them niggas earned that crown but until then . . .
(Harmonica Solo)
(Hook til fade)
J.A. at 521.