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Hooray for Y’allywood

Five lawyers on Georgia’s burgeoning entertainment field

Photo by Stan Kaady

Published in 2024 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Candice Dyer on February 7, 2024

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In 2019, a YouTuber named Tasha K posted more than 20 videos claiming that rap star Cardi B was a cocaine-using prostitute with sexually transmitted diseases.

The Grammy-winning singer doesn’t exactly shy away from sexual matters, so some gossip might seem inevitable. Plus, as Cardi B’s attorney Lisa Moore, principal of the boutique practice Moore Pequignot, reminds us, “Libel cases against celebrities are notoriously difficult and hard to prove. The last successful case of this nature was in the ’70s, when Carol Burnett sued National Enquirer. That’s how long it’s been.”

Moore with client Cardi B, whom she has repped in several successful lawsuits.

Cardi B sued anyway, and a federal jury awarded her $4.1 million. The jury found Tasha K liable on multiple counts of slander and libel, and invasion of privacy, as well as intentional inflection of emotional distress. The award included $250,000 that was voluntarily reduced to $25,000 for medical expenses and about $1.3 million to cover Cardi’s legal fees. Earlier this year, the verdict held up on appeal. “We definitively and repeatedly demonstrated that the defendants acted with actual malice,” says Moore. “They knew the falsity of what they were publishing and continued to do it for two reasons: one being greed, because of clicks and views; and two, out of spite.”

Moore also won a $5 million lawsuit after a self-described “family man” accused Cardi B of misusing his tattoo design in the sexually explicit cover art of her 2016 debut mixtape, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol. 1.

“This was a significant case regarding an artist’s First Amendment rights to free expression,” Moore says, “and an important lesson about when someone falsely tries to claim credit for your hard work and success. Cardi was very brave during the entire ordeal, and we were obviously thrilled that the jury came to the right result so quickly.”

Moore’s firm represents several local, marquee-name institutions—Coca-Cola, the Tyler Perry empire, and the estate of Richard Jewell. (It was her firm that negotiated the life-story rights in connection with the Clint Eastwood-helmed biopic.) She’s also had her hand in some recent Super Bowl commercials, including assisting Greenlight with the Ty Burrell talent agreement for its popular “I’ll take it” ad.

“Many people think of entertainment law as this very narrow practice area,” she says. “But there is actually a wide variety of legal issues that fall under the umbrella: music, film and television; copyright, trademarks, book publishing; First Amendment, new media, art law, etc.” She also thinks there’s an advantage if, like her, you do both transactional work and litigation. “The deal-only lawyers tend not to focus as much on provisions related to risk mitigation, forum selection clauses, and other legal issues that can have profound consequences.”

Putting Atlanta on the map

And there’s certainly plenty of work. Since sweeping tax incentives for film production passed in 2005 and were raised in 2008, Georgia has been dubbed “Y’allywood” because of how much it’s become Hollywood on the East Coast. In 2022 alone, Georgia hosted 412 productions. Both Oprah Winfrey and the estate of Michael Jackson use Atlanta-based entertainment lawyers.

Brooks with client BigWalkDog and colleagues at a private dinner hosted by Atlantic Records last October.

Then there’s the groundbreaking hip-hop scene. This past summer, the media and entertainment website Complex crowned Atlanta the No. 1 rap city in the world, topping, among others, New York, Los Angeles and London. Fulton County alone has more than 130 recording studios.

All of which is music to the ears of entertainment attorneys such as Moore, Steve Sidman, Jeffrey M. Smith, Aurielle Brooks, and Leron Rogers—a mix of seasoned veterans and scrappy up-and-comers. The dean on the scene remains Joel Katz, who mentored both Smith and Sidman.

“Joel started it all,” says Sidman. “Without him I would not be here.”

“Joel is the visionary who put Atlanta on the map,” says Smith. “He didn’t have to go to New York or LA. He had a kind of street sense that you don’t learn in law school.”

Some of these attorneys know from the creative side of things, too. Brooks, vice president and general counsel at Collective Gallery, plays piano, cello and violin, and was a one-time intern at Def Jam Recordings. “I’ve always been very passionate about the arts,” says the Atlanta native who reps Lil Baby, Tanerélle, Sexyy Redd, and Rome Flynn. “So it’s important to me to protect the rights of creative people, who might otherwise get taken advantage of—to make sure they own the rights to their work, that they’re getting their royalties and fees and advances and everything they’re entitled to.”

Brooks’ most satisfying moment? “Seeing a client’s album released and knowing I’ve played a part in that. It almost feels like seeing a child get born.”

Rogers, meanwhile, certainly knows about the “sports” part of sports and entertainment law. Drafted out of high school by the Atlanta Braves in 1989, his career was cut short when he hurt his rotator cuff. A partner at Fox Rothschild, he has worked with Kanye West, Rick Ross, and Coco Jones, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and once served as chair for the entertainment and sports law section of the state Bar.

He likes putting deals together “in a way that helps artists and athletes command equity and manage deal flow,” he says. “I try to help them bring eyeballs to their brand, getting social media for their content. I try to help them use their celebrity to branch into other deals, particularly endorsements. I do a lot of work with brand ambassadors.”

Smith with client Dr. Stephen Zeitels last November in Boston.

6.4 million frequent flier miles can’t be wrong

Jimmy Buffett may be gone, but Jeff Smith helps his legacy—a sprawling empire of Margaritaville resorts and restaurants—party on.

“I have worked with Jeff for about 20 years,” says Kristen Fancher, chief legal officer and general counsel of Margaritaville. “He is the most brilliant problem solver I have ever encountered. His wealth of knowledge across many legal fields is staggering. He regularly provides effective and efficient advice on a wide range of topics, including entertainment, litigation, corporate and real estate. In my career, I sometimes face unique legal challenges for which there is no precedent. Jeff is my first call every time.”

A native Minnesotan with an earnest, polite tone, Smith represents Oprah Winfrey and the Michael Jackson estate, along with Aerosmith and Future. He says he’s benefited from word-of-mouth and a little luck, but hard work goes along with that. “Currently I have 6.4 million frequent flier miles that I haven’t used yet,” he says. It’s why his favorite song is “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson. And yes, he’s represented Willie, too.

One-time Beverly Hills aesthetician Anastasia Soare, now CEO and founder of a billion-dollar cosmetic line, is also a Smith client. She thinks of him as part businessman and part psychologist, who is seemingly available 24/7. “He answers the phone at 1 a.m.,” she says.

“Jeffrey is very objective and honest,” she adds. “He cares about his clients—but he will also tell you if the other party happens to be right. And on the rare occasion he can’t help, he will refer you to someone, even at a different firm. … Some lawyers think they’re protecting you when what they’re actually doing is keeping you from growing. Jeffrey helps you grow.”

Sidman, a partner at FisherBroyles, who was a summer intern at Spin magazine in 1990 (where he walked Bob Guccione Jr.’s dog on occasion), feels that technology and social media have been the biggest drivers of change in entertainment law. “I represented clients when CDs were still, far and away, the primary means by which recorded music was exploited and consumed,” he says. “But the internet, and social media in particular, has changed, materially, aspects of everything in which my clients are involved—whether it relates to film and TV, book publishing, product endorsements, athlete representation.”

The contractual landscape is often slow to respond to such changes, Sidman says, but he tries to stay cautiously nimble. “I am likely to let things shake out in the marketplace, to let the snags get worked out and corrected, before diving head-first into the ‘latest and greatest’ gadgets and software,” he says.

His client base, too, has expanded. “I started off representing almost exclusively creative talent in the recorded music industry,” he recalls. But these clients expanded their own reach into publishing, television and movies; they invested in restaurants and lounges, or started liquor brands. “I was able to use those experiences as a springboard into other aspects of what I call ‘the business of pop culture,’” he says. His current client roster includes chefs such as John Shields, Karen Urie Shields, and Alon Shaya, and former UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett.

AI, of course, is the latest tech change attorneys are dealing with—though Smith reminds us it’s hardly new. “It was invented in 1956 at Dartmouth College,” he says, noting that he was one of the first handful of people who tested Westlaw when it was invented. “It’s just accelerated with the decreased cost of computers. It will continue to evolve.”

For his own work, Sidman says he is “futzing around with AI” when it comes to drafting contracts but still holds out hope for humanity. “Ours is still very much a relationship business,” he says. “Call me old-fashioned, but I am still a big believer in the power of actual human interaction, whether by phone or email or—perish the thought—meeting in-person.”

As for his clients’ work? “AI can be really, really troubling, especially for those of us who deal with content creators and their distribution partners,” he says. “As with all new tech, it’s going to take a significant amount of time for business and the law to catch up—if they ever can. It’s often the case that, just when you think you have your arms around it, there’s something new and truly revolutionary just around the bend, if not coming right at your face.”

It often comes right at trademarks, Smith says. “Professional infringers try to analyze the degree to which they can apply for and register a new trademark that is so similar to an existing famous trademark that consumers are confused.” Those kinds of bad actors have been around forever, he adds, but tech keeps making it faster and easier for them. “AI once again increased the speed and decreased the difficulty.”

The best feeling

So how much stardust do these attorneys get on their wingtips or Louboutins? It varies. Brooks likes to decompress by going to a client’s concert. Meanwhile, Smith’s idea of a rowdy Saturday night is playing chess or bridge. “I don’t normally have clients who want to play with me,” he says with a chuckle. His box seats at Atlanta Hawks games and Lakewood Amphitheater are often auctioned off for charity, and he turns down his Grammys tickets so they can be donated.

That doesn’t mean these attorneys don’t get starstruck. “Of course!” Sidman says. “I’m privileged to be in the same room with geniuses and living legends, so naturally I get a little giddy. And then to help their talent flourish? Well, that’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

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