Rap artist Jay-Z, whose ’99 Problems’ track is one of the biggest-selling hip-hop singles of the past 10 years, has been faced with a brand-new problem: a trademark lawsuit filed by a former business associate.
In papers filed at the Southern District of New York, graphic designer Dwayne Walker, who worked with Z – real name Shawn Carter – early in the rapper’s career, claimed that he is entitled to $7m in unpaid royalties from work carried out on creating the logo for Roc-a-fella: the record label that Carter founded in the mid-1990s. Named as co-defendants in the suit were Carter’s erstwhile Roc-a-fella business partners Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and producer-turned-filmmaker Damon Dash.
Carter set up Roc-a-fella in 1996 as a subsidiary of specialist independent label Priority Records in order to self-release his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. He continued to issue albums through the outlet en route to global popularity, until 2008, when he signed a $150m deal with promoter Live Nation, encompassing all of his musical activities from recording to touring, merchandising and product endorsements. Meanwhile, Roc-a-fella earned fame in its own right after signing a host of successful rappers to its roster.
The lawsuit claims that Walker was inspired to design the logo after seeing a draft effort that Dash had mocked up, and was convinced he could produce a better version. Walker alleges that he was offered an upfront fee of $3,500 for his initial work, complete with follow-on royalties of 2% on any Roc-a-fella product that bore the sign. That royalty package, according to Walker’s papers, is not due to expire until 2015 – but as yet, no payments have been received.
In the opinion of Walker’s lawyers, the sign – an illustration of a musical note superimposed upon a vinyl disc – is as much a part of Carter’s globe-spanning image as the Mickey Mouse silhouette is of Disney’s. ‘The logo has become universally recognised as an iconic symbol of Jay-Z, one of the most successful recording artists in the history of popular music,’ argued the lawsuit.
Carter and his wife Beyonce Knowles, also a globally successful recording artist, are no strangers to the legal minutiae associated with branding. Earlier this year, the couple raised eyebrows when they filed a trademark application at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for the mark ‘Blue Ivy Carter’ – the name of their newborn daughter. The application listed a variety of potential products that the mark could be used on, from mugs to cosmetics and mobile phones.
In 2004, Carter almost struck a deal with Chrysler to license his stage name for use on a special model of Jeep that was set to carry a unique paint job of platinum-flecked blue – a blend that the manufacturer had created in consultation with Carter’s team and renowned designer Adrian Van Anz. However, the deal fell through following a change in Chrysler’s management.