Rick Ross

Rick Ross at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2013. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

While it's generally unwise to make a mortal enemy of one of America's most famous former drug kingpins, the rapper Rick Ross has come out ahead of his shared namesake, the former L.A. cocaine baron "Freeway" Ricky Ross, in court and gets to legally keep his alias, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The original Ricky Ross had sued the rapper (and onetime corrections officer), born William Leonard Roberts, for appropriating his name and likeness in creating a hip-hop persona. Ross, who left prison in 2009 and is now by many accounts making amends for his crimes, had sought $10 million dollars in damages from a variety of defendants, including Roberts, Universal Music, Warner Brothers and Jay-Z. A judge threw out Ross' original suit over timeliness issues, and Ross later appealed.

But California appeals court Judge Roger Boren ruled this week that, on 1st Amendment grounds, Roberts' alias and image are protected speech. "We recognize that Roberts' work — his music and persona as a rap musician — relies to some extent on plaintiff's name and persona," Judge Boren wrote. "Roberts chose to use the name 'Rick Ross.' He raps about trafficking in cocaine and brags about his wealth. These were 'raw materials' from which Roberts' music career was synthesized. But these are not the 'very sum and substance' of Roberts' work."

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That fact that Roberts created a substantial individual identity for himself as a rapper, and not merely an appropriation of Ross' life story for profit, is what made his work "transformative" and thus legally entitled to free speech protection. Judge Boren cited a famous case in which a vendor sold merchandise depicting the Three Stooges and claimed it was protected speech, to help determine if Rick Ross' identity was one of the "raw materials" Roberts used in building his persona or "the very sum and substance" of Roberts' career.

"Roberts created a celebrity identity, using the name Rick Ross, of a cocaine kingpin turned rapper," Judge Boren wrote. "He was not simply an impostor seeking to profit solely off the name and reputation of Rick Ross. Rather, he made music out of fictional tales of dealing drugs and other exploits — some of which related to plaintiff. Using the name and certain details of an infamous criminal's life as basic elements, he created original artistic works."

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