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Punk Rock and the Law

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One of the questions we are frequently asked is how to find a case, and we have a popular Beginner’s Guide on that topic. Typically, people have a practical purpose for their research and are searching for a case that is analogous to their own that they can present as binding or persuasive authority to convince a court to rule in their favor. Cases can also provide an interesting glimpse into the lives and affairs of others. Today, I take a look at reports of cases involving punk rock bands.

This is a sign for the Funhouse, a punk rock club in Seattle.
Fun House sign, Seattle, Washington. Located right inside the shadow cast by the Space Needle, the Funhouse is Seattle’s oldest surviving punk rock club. (Carol Highsmith, photographer, Sept. 22, 2009.) Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Ramones are often cited as a pioneering punk rock band, gaining public recognition alongside Blondie and Richard Hell at New York’s famed CBGBs club. All of the original members have since died, and a case arose due to a dispute between the estates of Joey and Johnny Ramone. As the court notes, Joey and Johnny did not get along in life and even avoided speaking to one another, even when they were playing together. Their fractious relationship continued in court, even after both had passed away.

The Sex Pistols are the counterpart to the Ramones in the United Kingdom, creating a wave of punk that inspired the do-it-yourself ethic that led to the creation of bands as diverse as the Smiths and Joy Division. But just because they were influential doesn’t mean they got along any better than the Ramones. Bands have to make decisions about how their music and image might be used, and that can be particularly contentious in a genre concerned with promoting a sense of authenticity that is often at odds with taking advantage of commercial opportunities. In a recent case, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, attempted to convince an English Chancery Court that he has the ability to block the use of the Sex Pistols’ likeness and music in a television series, even though the other members and their representatives have consented to the use.

The Misfits are a punk band that is often described as playing horror rock, drawing inspiration from old B-movie horror films, such as Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The monsters of punk rock entered litigation over the decidedly non-spooky issue of trademark ownership.

The Clash are another influential punk band from the United Kingdom, and their career lasted much longer than The Sex Pistols, enduring well into the 1980s, lasting long enough to gain recognition in the form of singles that charted and received radio airplay. Maybe the secret to their longevity was not suing each other too often, because although all of our cases so far have concerned intra-band litigation, this case is actually just a citation to a Clash lyric in a matter concerning a contractual dispute.

Social Distortion is a band that mixes the energy and speed of punk rock with 1950s-style rockabilly music, such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry. All of our cases so far have mainly concerned intellectual property disputes, but this is a case concerning the scope of insurance coverage that arose from an alleged fight that took place between the singer, Mike Ness, and a member of the audience.

Have you come across any interesting cases involving musicians? Let us know in the comments.

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Comments (3)

  1. I just finished Jim Ruland’s excellent book on the history of SST Records, a label synonymous with Black Flag, the Minutemen, and the Descendents. Interesting discussion of the label’s early (sour) relationship with major label subsidiary Unicorn Records that blocked the timely release of some early Black Flag records, finally resolved when Unicorn went into bankruptcy.

    I’m also reminded of two lawsuits involving Fishbone — one where the bassist faced criminal charges for kidnapping the original guitarist, and, years later, the band got sued when an audience member was injured in the course of a stage dive.

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