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Nirvana Beats T-Shirt Copyright Lawsuit Involving Dante’s ‘Inferno’

Nirvana has defeated a lawsuit that claimed one of the band’s famous t-shirts was based on a copyrighted illustration of Dante’s Inferno, but the dispute is likely to resurface in a British court.

A California federal judge on Thursday (Oct. 21) dismissed the case against Nirvana and Live Nation’s merchandise unit, which centered on the band’s “Vestibule” shirt – an iconic design that features a drawing of a “seven circles of hell” below the band’s name.

According to accuser Jocelyn Susan Bundy, that drawing was created by her grandfather in 1949 and remains under British copyright. She sued in April, saying she had only just recently learned about Nirvana’s shirt, which was first released way back in 1989.

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But U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer dismissed the lawsuit on Thursday, ruling that the case would be a better fit for the British legal system than a Los Angeles courtroom.

“Given that one of the core disputes in this case concerns ownership of the copyright in the Illustration, which is governed by U.K. law, the U.K. likely has a stronger interest, on balance, in this case,” the judge wrote.

More than 25 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, Nirvana merchandise remains popular – and a source of litigation. The band is currently in protracted litigation against Marc Jacobs over the fashion designer’s use of a “smiley face” logo similar to the one used on Nirvana tees.

Bundy’s lawsuit, filed April 28, claimed the image on the “Vestibule” t-shirt was “virtually identical” to her grandfather’s “Upper Hell,” which was published as an illustration in a 1949 translation of the Dante’s Inferno. She cited widespread sale of the shirt and other merchandise.

“Defendants’ infringing products are (or were) sold online and at retail, both in the U.S. and abroad, including but not limited to major retailers such as H&M, Hot Topic, and Walmart,” she wrote at the time.

In addition to Nirvana LLC, the case also named Live Nation Merchandise LLC as a defendant. The band is repped by Mark S. Lee of Rimon PC; Live Nation is repped by Zia F. Modabber of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

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Nirvana and Live Nation argued that the case was “forum non conveniens” – a legal term for arguing that a case was filed in an inappropriate court. On Thursday, Judge Fischer agreed with that argument, but only with certain stipulations. She said her ruling would only become final if Nirvana agreed to litigate the case in the U.K., and if a British court agreed to hear it.

Taken together, those conditions mean the case will likely continue in the U.K. if Bundy chooses to bring a new case. Inge De Bruyn, the attorney who represented Bundy, told Billboard on Friday that “we are currently evaluating all options, including refiling the case in U.K. court.”

Attorneys for Nirvana and Live Nation did not return requests for comment on Friday.