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What’s In a Band Name? Apparently Lots of Litigation

A dispute between the Prince estate and Morris Day is hardly the first legal battle over a band name. Jefferson Starship, Journey and others have been here before.

Until recently, Morris Day thought he was in the clear to use “Morris Day and the Time” – the name of the funk band assembled by Prince in 1981 that Day has led for more than 40 years. He says Prince himself never had a problem with him using it before he died, and Day even secured his own federal trademark registration on the name in 2016.

But in December, he received a letter from the Prince estate telling him he could no longer use the name “in any form.” The estate’s attorneys cited a 1982 contract in which Day allegedly agreed that Prince’s company would retain the rights to “The Time” name. Day’s attorneys dispute that claim, saying the same deal gave him the right to keep on using it and Prince wanted him to do so.

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It’s an unfortunate situation for the beloved act, but hardly a novel one. Over the past 10 years, nasty legal disputes over band names have cropped up regularly, both for big acts like Journey, Stone Temple Pilots and Jefferson Starship, as well as groups like the Rascals, the Ebonys, the Commodores and the Platters.

One common fault line: Who truly constitutes the band? Is it the members, or an LLC that owns the rights to the name? Is it the original lineup, or the one that produced the biggest hits? Does one key member and a bunch of replacements count? Fans, band members and lawyers will likely give you different answers.

In the new dispute, the Prince estate might be right that Morris Day doesn’t own “The Time,” but is it really “The Time” without Morris Day?

“There can be a real disparity between the legal answer, about who owns the trademark, and the emotional answer as to what the name of the band means to the members and to the public,” said Marty Schwimmer, a trademark lawyer at the law firm Leason Ellis who worked on the Ebonys case.

When the Stone Temple Pilots split with longtime frontman Scott Weiland in 2013, it quickly devolved into litigation. The other members filed a lawsuit against their former bandmate, claiming the band’s partnership retained all rights to the name — and that he had “misappropriated” those rights by using “Stone Temple Pilots” to tout solo shows. Weiland then sued them back, claiming the band had no right to use the name without him.

“The band that played last weekend was not ‘Stone Temple Pilots,’ and it was wrong of them to present themselves as that,” Weiland wrote at the time. “They don’t have the ethical right to call themselves ‘Stone Temple Pilots’ because it’s misleading and dishonest to the millions of fans that have followed us for so many years.” The case ended in a settlement in 2014.

Partnership agreements and holding companies are designed to avoid these disputes, but they only go so far.

In 1985, the members of Jefferson Starship all signed onto a written agreement to “retire” the band’s name, but in the 1990s founding frontman Paul Kantner started using it again – in clear violation of that deal. Eventually, the band struck a settlement that allowed Kanter to keep using it, and he later recruited two other former members to play shows under the old name. All settled, right?

But when Kanter died in 2016, former Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico filed a lawsuit against the surviving members of Kanter’s band, calling their use of the name an “affront” to the band’s legacy. He said the settlement had applied only to Kanter, and that his bandmates’ connection to the original was “too attenuated” to use the name. The two sides eventually reached a settlement in late 2018.

Even with the best written agreements, experts say bands pose unique problems that are tricky to plan around. Chief among them are the kind of shifting lineups and varying levels of success over long periods time seen in the Starship dispute.

“In my experience, lineup changes and leaving members have been the most significant issues, particularly if there are periods of time when the band is inactive,” said Robert J. deBrauwere, an attorney at the law firm Pryor Cashman LLP who has handled multiple such cases. “After such a lapse, which iteration or members has the right to use the name?”

Such disputes can last years – or decades. Members of the Beach Boys spent more than 10 years litigating over their name, before a settlement was reached in 2008. Members of the Platters, an early rock group known for hits like “Only You” and “The Great Pretender,” started fighting over their name in 1974 and basically never stopped, resulting in what one court called “a tangled web” of inconsistent rulings spanning four decades. Founding member Herb Reed finally won a definitive ruling in 2012, but litigation has persisted even after that.

In Day’s case, things might move a bit faster. The two groups of heirs who will soon take control of the Prince estate have already said they oppose the dispute, and that they want Day to be able to use the name. But soon enough, another fight over an iconic band name is bound to crop up.

“There are all these weird factors that pertain to bands that increase the possibility of a dispute by a small amount,” said Schwimmer, the Leason Ellis attorney. “And they all add up.”