In the music industry, a name is a more than just a name. It’s a brand. As with any brand, owners will protect their rights at any cost.
There’s a tacit significance in crafting a band name because it has the potential to be iconic, like the Ramones or the Beatles. People in bands spend years trying to come up with the perfect name. They will write an entire record before knowing what they’ll call themselves.
Trademarking a band name ensures that if a band begins to garner a following, another band by the same name won’t hinder their success. Several famous bands were forced to change their names when other bands with similar monikers filed suit against them.
When bands finally achieve commercial success, everyone knows their names. Because they want to preserve their rights and reputations, they take seemingly extreme measures to protect their trademarks.
Below are five examples of famous bands that went through some infamous trademark disputes.
1. Beach Boys trademark dispute
When tension arises within a band, a member can sometimes get sue happy. Take the Beach Boys for example. Lead singer Mike Love acquired sole licensing rights to the Beach Boys name in 1998, following Carl Wilson’s death. He then sued bandmates Al Jardine and Brian Wilson (who is also his cousin).
Love first sued Jardine for touring under the name “Al Jardine of the Beach Boys” and “Beach Boys Family & Friends.” He then filed a lawsuit against Wilson when Wilson released an unfinished Beach Boys album, SMiLE.
While promoting the album, Wilson released a free compilation featuring re-recorded Beach Boys songs. Love stated that Wilson had been “misappropriating Love’s songs, likeness, and the Beach Boys trademark, as well as the ‘SMiLE’ album itself.” According to Love, the compilation negatively affected demand for the original tracks.
Ten years later, Love still holds a grudge. He officially kicked out the remaining original members of the band. And it all started with the licensing rights to a name.
2. New Kids On The Block
During the 90s, the uber-successful boy band New Kids On The Block sued a publishing company over a teen poll. The pop-culture-centered legal battle serves as a seminal case for trademark infringement, and a reference point for future lawsuits.
USA Today and The Star newspapers polled teenagers about the New Kids On The Block, asking them to call a 900 number to vote for their favorite member. Since the publishing company profited from the calls, NKOTB sued them for trademark infringement, citing misappropriation.
During the course of the suit, a question arose: what happens when a trademarked product is referred to only by its marked name? This question prompted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to create the nominative fair use exemption from federal trademark laws. The court ruled in the newspaper’s favor, ruling that the paper couldn’t have identified the band by any other title or term.
3. Van Halen
The American rock band Van Halen was named after brothers, guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex. They decided to trademark the family name, creating a strong brand.
When Alex Van Halen married Kelly Carter in 1984, she took his last name. They divorced 12 years later, but Kelly kept the famous last name. When Kelly embarked on a new business venture 20 years after the divorce, Alex sued her over the use of his last name in her personal business ventures. Kelly had trademarked the name of her construction and interior design company, and Alex didn’t want his fans thinking that his band was associated with his ex-wife’s couches and accent pillows.
According to the lawsuit, Van Halen’s trademarks “have acquired extensive goodwill, developed a high degree of distinctiveness, are recognized throughout the United States as well-known and famous, and recognized as identifying high-quality goods and services,” attorneys wrote. Ms. Van Halen’s “conduct is likely to have caused and will continue to cause confusion and mistakes among consumers and others as to the source, origin, or sponsorship of her products.”
The case, filed in 2012, is still pending.
4. Scott Weiland, Stone Temple Pilots
Legally binding contracts and agreements are essential in the music industry, especially within bands and groups. You never know when your lead singer might decide to leave for a more glamorous solo career. The “formerly of” controversy has been happening as long as members have been quitting bands. Often.
Stone Temple Pilots must have heeded some stellar legal advice in the 90s, because their original band partnership agreement was pretty comprehensive. In the contract, written in 1992, the band agreed on 2 very important things. First, the group owns the rights to the band’s name, logo, artwork, copyrights, and trademark. Second, any member could be fired for “grossly negligent performance or failure of performance of material duties, repeated late or non-appearances at concerts…”
When STP fired lead singer Scott Weiland for lateness to (and sometimes absence from) concerts, he began touring on his own, using the Stone Temple Pilots name and songs. This violated their agreement that former members couldn’t use the band’s name or even refer to themselves as “former members of STP.”
The lawsuit stated that Weiland had been “violating his duties to the band and misappropriating the band’s name and assets to further his solo career” and that the band was adversely affected by his actions.
They replaced Weiland with an equally successful singer from a different band and are still playing concerts. Weiland, on the other hand, isn’t having as much luck.
5. The Drifters
It can be confusing for music fans when a band changes its name and leaves the old one behind. But it can be even more confusing when other musicians continue using the old name. This was the case with The Drifters. There are two versions of The Drifters, and perhaps a trademark could have helped keep the identity, and integrity, of the band intact.
Clyde McPhatter and Bill Pinkney were founding members, along with 4 other musicians. After several lineup changes, McPhatter sold his share of the group to George Treadwell, a music manager, leaving the group shortly thereafter. The other members soon followed suit.
Treadwell organized a new group under the The Drifters name, with singer Ben E. King as the frontman. While The Drifters experienced a “golden age” with Atlantic Records, Bill Pinkney continued to tour with his own group, “The Original Drifters”, a name that he trademarked and of which he received exclusive ownership.
In 1988, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted The Drifters, including members from both versions of the original band.
More Famous Trademark Disputes
Read more on some well-known trademark disputes.