Court denies Cypress Hill backup singer’s suit against Rockstar Games

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas -- CJ

Michael “Shagg” Washington is an aspiring model, backup singer for popular marijuana-centric rap group Cypress Hill, and according to Washington himself, he’s the inspiration for the protagonist in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

That was the claim Washington made in a $250 million lawsuit he leveled against the gaming company. If Washington is to be believed, Rockstar developers lifted his likeness and mannerisms for the character of Carl “CJ” Johnson, and even went so far as to question Washington about his youth as a gang member, which he says went directly toward fleshing out Johnson’s backstory.

Whether you believe Johnson or not, the California court system has officially denied his suit, saying that Washington was unable to provide substantial evidence that the character is, in fact, based on his likeness. “The only admissible evidence Washington submitted in support of his opposition was a declaration stating that he had ‘reviewed the game and [concluded that] the character known as CJ [wa]s readily identifiable as [him]self,'” writes Judge Michael Johnson of California’s appellate court in his official ruling (.pdf). 

“… the court concluded that Washington had failed to introduce evidence that established a probability of prevailing on the merits of his claims,” the ruling later states.

Keep in mind that this ruling is not necessarily the court saying that Rockstar didn’t use Washington as a model for CJ, just that the character we all saw in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a suitably generic pastiche of early-90s Los Angeles gang culture to earn protection under the First Amendment. Washington is listed in the San Andreas credits as a model, so it’s entirely possible that his claims are true, but the burden of proof in this suit lies entirely with Washington. To wit:

… the court concluded that all of Washington’s claims arose from the production and distribution of GTA: San Andreas, which was an “expressive work entitled to First Amendment protection.” It further explained that GTA: San Andreas “concerned issues of public interest (such as gang activity, crack cocaine use, the Rampart LAPD scandal, race relations, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots), has received critical acclaim, and has garnered such success and notoriety that the game itself has become a subject of public interest.”

Unfortunately for Washington, this appellate court decision was his final chance to stick it to Rockstar Games. His suit had previously been heard in a traditional California court, which had largely the same opinion as the more recent ruling. Though he could continue seeking what he considers justice, it’s intensely unlikely that any future judges would overrule the decisions of both the first California judge to hear Washington’s case and the Appeals Court that most recently rejected his suit.

Intriguingly, the case seems to echo a similar lawsuit we reported on at the beginning of October. Pop-ska group No Doubt sued Activision over what it considered an inappropriate use of the band’s likeness in 2009’s Band Hero. Unlike Washington’s, No Doubt’s suit was actually successful. The end result was Activision opting to settle out of court, instead of facing the band in front of a judge. That’s a smart move, as unlike Washington No Doubt’s team of lawyers had a very damning portfolio of evidence to back their claims.

However you feel about this ruling, the precedent it sets is depressing. Not the part about California rejecting vague claims of likeness exploitation, but the increased frequency at which we see lawsuits aimed at gaming companies by celebrities. As developers attempt to make their titles more realistic, they’ll increasingly turn to these celebs for cameo appearances, and in our modern, litigious society it’s all too easy to land in the crosshairs of a starlet or crooner that feels they’ve been slighted.

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