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Brands, Concerts, Music, Trademarks
September 18, 2018
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The countdown has begun, with less than a year until Woodstock turns 50. Like Watergate a few years later, Woodstock occupies that rarefied world of one-word names that conjure up not just a place or an event, but a cultural watershed. Although Woodstock was not the first music festival of the Summer of Love era, it’s the one that dominates the collective memories of an entire generation, many of whom claim to have wallowed in the mud with the 500,000 souls who actually slogged their way to Yasgur’s farm to hear some of the leading rock, folk, soul, and blues acts of the day. Hendrix electrified with his searing “Star Spangled Banner,” Richie Havens strummed fervently for “Freedom,” Canned Heat celebrated the simple pleasure of “Going Up the Country,” while Country Joe and his Fish echoed the nation’s angst with their sardonic “Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?) All this and more was immortalized in an Oscar® winning documentary that cemented Woodstock as the defining music festival for generations of concert goers.
An attempt to rekindle the magic with a 25th Anniversary festival didn’t (and couldn’t) live up to the legend of the original Woodstock. But don’t think for a moment that the multi-day communal music festival is like peace signs, VW buses, fringed jackets, and bell-bottoms, a relic of the past. Thanks to bands with nomadic tribal fan bases like the Grateful Dead and Phish, and thanks especially to entrepreneurs with bold visions and bolder marketing machines, the modern music festival is alive and well. This phenomenon has transformed the music business into a seemingly unending string of multi-day festivals from April through October.
And no festival defines and exemplifies the modern concert soundscape more than The Coachella Music and Arts Festival, better known by the single name Coachella. Since 1993, when Pearl Jam headlined, Coachella’s been held each Spring in California’s Coachella Valley. Like its Tennessee doppelganger, the (unaffiliated) Bonaroo, Coachella attracts hundreds of thousands of concertgoers who feast on a smorgasbord of mega-stars, genre-leading acts, and rising artists presented virtually round the clock on multiple stages. Headliners besides Pearl Jam have included Radiohead, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Madonna, Paul McCartney, and Prince, just to name a few.
With over 25 years of success, millions of attendees, scores of millions in revenues, and massive amounts of media coverage, you’d be forgiven if you’d think that the Coachella name had achieved a level of renown that would scare away copycats. But just as Watergate spawned a succession of follow-on “gates,”( like “Deflategate,” the New England Patriot’s most recent “are they cheaters?” kerfuffle), Coachella has inspired imitators who’ve tried to tack “chella” onto their names.
But today’s concert industry is big business involving big brands like Coachella. And to vigilant brand owners, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. So, when it learned that a Coachella Valley-based film-festival planned to call itself Filmchella, Coachella made it face the music; it sued for trademark infringement, arguing that the overlapping audiences for music and film would assume that the two “chellas” are related.
At first, the judge sided with Coachella and temporarily stopped Filmchella before the first projector began showing the first reel. That ruling—a preliminary injunction—was just the opening act. It didn’t actually decide the infringement issue, and so litigation ensued. Emboldened by its early success, Coachella asked the court to decide the case on summary judgment—arguing that the facts were so clear cut that the case could be decided without a trial.
This time, the judge modified his tune, concluding that while Coachella undeniably is well-known, a reasonable jury might find the “chella” portion weaker than the mark as a whole. The court also questioned whether a high budget music festivals with celebrity performers is similar enough to an indy film-festival like Filmchella to confuse festival aficionados. Finally, the judge noted that although Coachella and Filmchella share the “chella” suffix, the two marks “have some differences, such as different font style and different beginning.” “In short,” the judge concluded in the coda of his opinion, “a reasonable jury could find that there is or that there is no likelihood of confusion from the totality of facts [and, therefore,] the jury is entitled to weigh these facts to determine whether a reasonably prudent consumer is likely to be confused.” Coachella Music Festival, LLC v. Simms, (U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner, Central District of Cal., Sept. 18. 2018).
So, for Coachella and Filmchella, the litigation beat goes on and a courtroom showdown looms.
Nearly 50 years ago, Woodstock was billed as “3 Days of Peace and Music.” From today’s vantage point, with the music industry dominated by streaming services and mega-concerts, that slogan seems like a hippie dream. But then, again, the aftermath of Woodstock was mired in nearly as much litigation as the crowd at Max Yasgur’s farm was mired in mud during the rain-drenched second day. So, the founders of Coachella are carrying on the tradition of Woodstock in more ways than one. Cue the Woodstock film soundtrack: “It’s been a long time coming. Gonna be a long time gone.”
"I always think that when something is currently very trendy, it’s already very old."
Ennio Morricone, film score composer, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and many others.
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