Music

Nirvana Must Face Child Porn Lawsuit Over Naked Baby On ‘Nevermind’ Album Cover, Appeals Court Rules

A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled against Nirvana and revived a child pornography lawsuit filed by the man who appeared as a nude baby on the cover of the band’s 1991 album Nevermind.

Spencer Elden, now in his 30s, claimed the photo – one of the most iconic album covers in rock history – violated federal child pornography laws by displaying a sexualized image of a minor. But a lower ruled last year that he had waited far too long to bring his lawsuit.

In a decision overturning that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that each new republication of the image – including a highly-publicized 30th anniversary re-release in 2021 – could constitute a new “injury” to Elden that would reset the statute of limitations.

“Victims of child pornography may suffer a new injury upon the republication of the pornographic material,” Judge Sandra Segal Ikuta wrote for a three-judge panel. “This conclusion is consistent with the Supreme Court’s view that every viewing of child pornography is a repetition of the victim’s abuse.”

The ruling does not mean that Elden has won the case. The lawsuit will now return to a lower court, where he must actually prove that the image meets the definition of child pornography – something Nirvana vigorously disputes and some legal experts doubt.

In a statement to Billboard, Nirvana’s attorney Bert Deixler called the ruling a “procedural setback” that did not affect their core arguments: “We will defend this meritless case with vigor and expect to prevail.”

An attorney for Elden did not immediately return a request for comment.

Originally released Sept. 24, 1991, Nevermind reached the top spot on the Billboard 200 in January 1992 and ultimately spent 554 weeks on the chart. The album has sold more than 30 million copies and is widely considered one of the most influential in the history of popular music.

The album’s cover — a nude infant swimming in a pool chasing after a dollar attached to a fishhook — was long interpreted as an edgy critique of greed and capitalism. But in his 2021 civil lawsuit, Elden claimed it was something else entirely: the kind of “lascivious” display of a minor’s genitals that’s prohibited under federal child pornography statutes.

“Spencer’s true identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day,” he claimed at the time.

In addition to Nirvana’s corporate entity, the lawsuit also named Kurt Cobain’s estate, Universal Music Group, Dave Grohl and a number of other companies and individuals. The lawsuit was a civil action, and no allegations of criminal wrongdoing by anyone have been raised.

Nirvana sharply disputed that the image amounted to child pornography, but argued first that the case should be dismissed for a simpler reason: the statute of limitations. They cited the fact that Elden had seemingly endorsed his role in rock history on a number of occasions, including prior to the cutoff year for the 10-year statute of limitations.

“Long before 2011, as Elden has pled, Elden knew about the photograph, and knew that he (and not someone else) was the baby in the photograph,” the band claimed in its motion to dismiss the case. “He has been fully aware of the facts of both the supposed ‘violation’ and ‘injury’ for decades.”

In a ruling in September 2022, a federal judge agreed with Nirvana’s arguments. He ruled that the 10-year time limit began when a victim “reasonably discovers” either the crime or the injury caused by it – and that under either time limit, Elden had clearly filed his case too late.

But in Thursday’s decision, the Ninth Circuit said the time limits were more like those used in defamation cases and other “dignitary torts,” where a new repetition of the offending publication could give grounds to sue, despite the statute of limitations.

“The online dissemination of child pornography haunts victims long after their original images or videos are created,” the court wrote. “As the Supreme Court has explained, the victim’s knowledge of publication of the visual material increases the emotional and psychic harm suffered by the child.”

The court added later: “If a victim learns a defendant has distributed child pornography and does not sue, but then later learns the defendant has done so again many years later, the statute of limitations … does not prevent the plaintiff from bringing a claim based on that new injury.”

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