Estate of Notorious B.I.G. Settles Long-Running Photography IP Dispute

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Photo Credit: Nelson Ndongala

The Estate of the Notorious B.I.G. settles a long-running trademark and right of publicity dispute with a late photographer.

A years-long trademark lawsuit has been resolved in favor of the Estate of the Notorious B.I.G., having initially sued late hip-hop photographer Chi Modu in 2019 over the unauthorized use of photographs he took of Christopher Wallace (better known as Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G.) in 1996.

Modu had used the images on “snowboards, (…) skateboards, shower curtains, and NFTs” without the estate’s permission, which he claimed was not necessary since he was the original photographer. The estate sued Modu in 2019.

In May 2022, the court agreed with the estate that Modu’s actions were in violation of the law, and the estate won a preliminary injunction that prevented Modu’s widow from selling merchandise with her late husband’s photographs of the rapper, as it violated the estate’s right to publicity in Wallace’s image.

Prior to the court’s settlement, the trial would have begun this month. Terms of the settlement will remain confidential, according to Nixon Peabody LLP, which advised the estate in the dispute.

“We are satisfied to bring this high-profile matter to an end, successfully vindicating our client’s publicity and other IP rights,” said Nixon Peabody Intellectual Property partner Staci Jennifer Trager, who led representation of the estate. “Pictures of Christopher cannot be commercially exploited without a license from our client. The settlement agreement is a testament to the dedication of our client, as well as our team members, in staying the course over several years.”

Alongside Trager, the Nixon Peabody team defending the Estate of the Notorious B.I.G. included Intellectual Property counsel Aaron Brian, and associate Mark Zhai.

As a photographer for The Source, Modu took pictures of hip-hop legends including Tupac Shakur, Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J. In 1996 for a magazine cover shoot, he took several photos of Biggie standing in front of the World Trade Center — a year before the rapper was shot and killed, and five years before the Twin Towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001.