The music industry should consider forming a group-name registry to serve as a central information source as to who has rights in which names.
The story is all-too-common: Time and/or tension dilute the amount of original or well-established members in a successful music group. The group then splinters into same-or similarly-named offshoots that compete for concert bookings and consumer dollars.
Purists, who may have been misled through vague or even false advertisements into going to a show at which no key bandmembers are performing, get infuriated at the venue and promoter, and develop skepticism about future uses of that group's name. And fans with more liberal views of what currently will hold up as a credible member-grouping of a favorite act may also feel cheated.
This scenario could trigger claims under truth-in-advertising and related consumer-protection laws. For performers, there are often lawsuits among band members or with non-artist parties, such as managers, who may claim rights in group names.
In recent years, lawsuits over rights in band names have resulted in court rulings involving such groups as Steppenwolf, Bad Company, the Beach Boys, War and the Crusaders. Litigation over name rights in the Platters, the most successful vocal group of the '50s, has raged for more than three decades, with at least five court rulings issued in the last three years alone. (Only Herb Reed survives as an original performing member.)
Claims in these cases can range from trademark infringement to dilution, unfair competition and breach of contract.
Even groups with modest success end up in court. The Intruders were primarily known for their 1968 Philly soul hit "Cowboys to Girls." In May 2004, a Manhattan federal court cancelled a federal service-mark registration for the Intruders name that had been filed by the leader of a lineup co-managed by an original member. The plaintiff, who manages competing Intruders, obtained his rights through the brother of group founder Eugene Daughtry. The federal court's detailed account of the complex history of the Intruders name made clear the fundamental value of such rights.
What all this demonstrates is that the music industry should consider forming a group-name registry to serve as a central information source as to who has rights in which names.
Performing artists, booking agents, promoters, venues and managers would become signatories to the registry, which would serve as an information clearinghouse.
The registry would require chain-of-title documentation verifying rights. Booking agents and promoters interested in a particular group could then check with the registry for valid parties to contact. Booking agent, promoter and venue signatories would use a registry seal in advertising and promotion.
Concert presenters would need to indicate whether original or well-established group members are in the current lineup. This would allow consumers to make informed choices when they are deciding whether to go to see a particular group in concert, as well as instill confidence in concert presenters that use the registry seal.
Registry signatories could be bound to submit disputes over rights in band names to a mediation body overseen by the registry. This would help centralize the arena for group-name disputes and eliminate the high costs and complexities in what can be multi-state litigation over group names.
Of course, there are potential liability issues for a group-name registry, but these can be mitigated by indemnification and warranty provisions signed by registry members.
At least one state has enacted legislation that regulates rights in band names. In April 2004, South Carolina's governor signed a law that requires a minimum of one member who played a significant role in a group's recordings to be performing in order for the group's name to be used for concerts.
Thus, the movement is already in place, and an industry registry seems like a next, but wider-reaching, logical step.
Stan Soocher is associate professor and former chair of Music & Entertainment Industry Studies at the University of Colorado at Denver. He also has a background as an entertainment attorney. He is the author of "They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court," and is at work on a music law textbook.