From garage bands to Rock n’ Roll legends, all bands have a beginning and all bands come to an end. But whether the end comes on stage, at a charity benefit (like the Eagles where one band member is actively counting down the number songs until they go back stage to get into a fistfight), a key member dies, or simply members part their ways peacefully, the issue of a band’s name will become a problem. For the successful commercial bands, who owns the band’s name, and more specifically who may use it, is literally a million dollar question.
Like most legal questions, the answer is “it depends.” What it mostly depends on is whether or not a Band Agreement is in place. A Band Agreement will typically lay out in fine detail what happens if a member leaves, whether than be to buy them out of their rights to the name, allow the remaining members to continue on using the name, or forcing the remaining members to rename the band, among other options.
If there is no Band Agreement, the waters get quite murkier. When there is no Band Agreement, it is quite likely a fight over the band’s name will ensue. There are several cases that shed a little light on how a name dispute would play out in court.
The first major case was at the hands of the feuding members of Steppenwolf. The bassist for Steppenwolf left the band and was touring with a new band while using several monikers that identified him as a member of Steppenwolf. Specifically at issue were the monikers “formerly of Steppenwolf”, “Original Member of Steppenwolf”, and “Original Founding Member of Steppenwolf.” The case was filed on claims that a trademark violation had taken place for using the name “Steppenwolf” on promotional material when the band at large was not involved. The court chose to side with the bassist and allowed him to use the monikers so long as they were placed less prominently than the references to the new band the bassist was touring with.
Another major case comes from The Beach Boys. A former member, Al Jardine, was sued by a corporation that held the trademark to The Beach Boys because he was touring without the band while using a series of names that referred explicitly and prominently to The Beach Boys while having his name distinguished from the band in smaller and less prominent locations. It reached a point where fans and promoters were actually confused as to whether Al Jardine’s band’s concert was actually The Beach Boys or whether the other nearby Beach Boys concert was Al Jardine’s band. The court ruled against Al Jardine, finding it was a situation in which people would be confused as to who was performing and where the actual The Beach Boys performance would be.
Another dispute arose with the band Deep Purple. Several years after Deep Purple broke up, a former member was using the names “Deep Purple” and “New Deep Purple” in association with his band’s performances. The management company who owned the rights to the name filed a lawsuit to enjoin the use of the name. The Court ruled in favor of the management company, as the band’s trademark was still in use because distributions of Deep Purple’s recordings were still taking place. Because the “Deep Purple” trademark was still in use even though the band had broken up years prior, the court enjoined the former member from using the name and awarded damages.
These cases show the importance of a band agreement containing terms and provisions on who can use the band’s names and how it can be used. Those bands showing themselves to be commercially viable should get the message and have a band agreement drawn up.