Another dispute involving the rights to a band/group name has been reported. This time, the dispute involves the well-known songwriting and production duo, The Neptunes. The duo is made up of childhood friends Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. 

The Neptunes were hit-making machines in the late ‘90s and the 2000s.  The duo wrote and produced for global superstars such as Usher, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani to name a few.  In 2022, the Neptunes were inducted into the Songwriters All of Fame.

The dispute arose when Williams’ company, PW IP Holdings, lodged applications for the mark, “The Neptunes” in various classes of goods and/services without listing Hugo as a co-owner. Hugo claims that Williams and his company “fraudulently” seek control over the “The Neptunes” trade mark.

A trade mark is a word, phrase, or device which distinguishes the goods and/or services of one company/person from those of another. The owner of a trade mark has the exclusive right to use the mark and prevent others from using an identical or confusingly mark in the course of trade.

It does not appear that Williams disputes Hugo’s co-ownership as he claims to have contacted Hugo’s team at some stage to formalise the co-ownership. Hugo contends that Williams and his team were insisting on “onerous business terms” that would deprive Hugo of “proper control and compensation.”

In the South African context, section 10 (3) of the Trade Marks Act 194 of 1993, states that a bona fide proprietor of a trade mark is a person who has originated, acquired, or adopted the mark and has used it or proposes to use it in relation to the relevant goods and/or services.  Applying this section in the context of a musical act that consists of more than one member is not always simple given the erratic nature of group dynamics.

To avoid chaos, artists are encouraged, from the onset, to enter into a comprehensive band agreement that addresses, amongst other things, trade mark ownership portions, the use of the band name by former members, administration, licensing, and compensation.  In his book, ‘South African Music Law, Contracts & Business’ Advocate Nick Matzukis likens a band agreement to an antenuptial agreement. This is a very useful way to view it and yes, it is absolutely THAT serious.

We’re watching this matter with keen interest although it appears ripe for settlement.

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