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Q. Do I own my band's name and how do I copyright it?

I have the band name Deleted registered here in Sydney, Australia. I already have a CD in the shops and I'll be releasing another one soon. However, a UK-based band has recently listed the same name. Do I have dibs on the name, or is it some kind of bun rush until someone becomes 'famous' under that name?

Felix Almentero M.D

SOS contributor Big George Webley replies: The issues that surround this question are a real nightmare, as there are more international examples and web sites offering registration (mostly crusty collectives offering unsustainable theory, based loosely on a legal concept) than there are bands with a major deal these days. The problem is, intellectual property disputes and brand-protection are amongst the most lucrative in any hot-shot legal-eagle's portfolio. So, before you even think about employing the services of Sue, Grabbit and Runn, let's look at the vexed subject of artist moniker ownership.

A while back, there was an unsigned, record-less band in San Francisco and a signed English semi-supergroup, both called Flash. The American band, with nothing better to do, kicked up a stink about the fact that they had used the name Flash before the colonials, and used the concept of 'priority' to stop them selling their album in the bay area for a period of time. Another legal term they could have employed here was 'territory', meaning if you use a name first, it's yours, but only in the areas you've used it.

Now, before we go any further, you must bear two things in mind. Firstly, we live in an all-but-unregulated global community, and secondly (and more importantly) there are any number of organisations, professionals and agencies only too happy to take on your case, for a fee (and this is one area of the law where no-win-no-fee doesn't exist). So, by all means, sign up to as many web site protection collectives as you can and check with every agency you're a member of. But in the case of any dispute, it's a legal matter and the lawyers will always win.

As for names, you'd think there are some so generic they could've fallen out of a tree and hit you on the head. But try calling yourself Apple and see how far you get!

Most name quarrels happen across the pond; there are dozens of examples of USA vs UK: Smokey vs Smokey Robinson, the UK Beat, even the Detroit Spinners, although the latter was a victory over one of Motown's finest by a British Christian folk outfit. One very high-profile case was Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood's first band, the Birds. In the mid 1960's — around the time they were starting to cause a commotion in coffee-shop culture — their manager took out legal action against the USA-based Byrds, who were coming over to tour. They lost the case, and their momentum.

So what should you do? I've recently been working with a Luton-based punk band called the Kindred, or The Kindred UK if you want to check them out on Myspace, so as not to be confused with Florida-based rockers the Kindred. They're just one of thousands of other acts sharing names across the water. And it's not just bands. I'm Big George, as is Big George and the Business — the kicking riddum-and-booze band from Scotland — and Big George Jackson, the delta blues man, not to mention a second-hand car dealer from Ohio and an ex-world champion heavyweight boxer with a penchant for cooking burgers.

Another good example from history is Ian Dury's backing band, the Blockheads. Before they were Ian's backing band, and after they were Kokomo, they were called Loving Awareness — a pirate radio legend. However, their first choice was Lesbeat. The circumstances around how that name was scuppered are clouded in mystery, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that if you write the name in a circle (as would have been seen on a record — lesbeatlesbeatlesbeat), it spells... you know who. Strange, as the Bootleg Beatles and the other million tribute bands seem to get away with all kinds of plagiarisms.

So, an answer is, register your name everywhere, as a trade mark, on the Internet then become famous asap and spend all your wealth in the courts taking out cease-and-desist orders on anyone who has the audacity to even contemplate using your name. On the other hand, you could just get on with playing and realise that your good idea for a band name will probably be someone else's good idea too. 

Published October 2006