Who owns a band’s name?
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UPDATED: Feb 20, 2013
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A band name may be owned by the members or by whoever has taken the band under contract. Ownership of a band’s name depends largely on whether there is an informal or formal arrangement in place, and what those agreements consist of. If the name is owned by contracting parties, then the producer, the manager, or sometimes the record company itself will own the name. Of course, if the band members themselves want to retain ownership, it is always preferable to get this and other band issues agreed upon in writing. A formal band agreement that defines ownership for all band members, past, present, and future, will minimize confusion.
The Importance of Written Agreements
The band name usually belongs to all of the members of the band, but written agreements can completely change ownership. Instead of debating ownership, the parties should have an agreement in writing, and show ownership by filing a band name with the Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. This also covers the potential for discovering another band with the same or similar name. The type of copyright most commonly used in musical ownership is called a “service mark.” Service marks are meant to show creative ownership of a service, since most bands provide entertainment as a service rather than as a product.
Problems with the Rule of Thumb
As a general rule, all the people who form the band also form the band name: they have common ownership in promoting and benefitting from the name. They also have a common interest in preventing the name from being misused. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to negative consequences, as managers may have a concept in mind for a band, find members to sign on, and then be in dispute with the band members over ownership of the name and other details associated with it, such as concert dates, royalties, and promotions. Fleetwood Mac’s manager argued for years that he, not the band members, owned the name and the manager actually created a competing band to tour. Disputes between band members can also lead to similar outcomes (e.g., Electric Light Orchestra versus ELO II).