Music

Nirvana Settles Lawsuit Against Marc Jacobs Over Band’s Smiley Face Logo

A legal battle over Nirvana‘s iconic smiley face logo will end in a settlement, resolving years of sprawling litigation between the band, fashion designer Marc Jacobs and a former Geffen Records art designer who claims he created it.

In a notice filed in Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday, attorneys for all three sides said they had accepted a mediator’s proposal to end the long-running case over the logo, which has appeared on countless t-shirts and other merch in the years since Kurt Cobain’s death.

Attorneys told Judge John A. Kronstadt that they would formalize the settlement within 21 days, and the judge later removed all upcoming hearings and other deadlines. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, and each side did not return a request for comment.

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Nirvana’s logo – a yellow smiley face with X’d-out eyes — first appeared during promotion for 1991’s Nevermind. The design eventually became something of an unofficial emblem for the band, and has become particularly prominent again in recent years amid a wave of 90s nostalgia among younger music fans.

The band’s lawyers first sued Marc Jacobs in 2018, accusing the design house of using a look-alike image on a line of its own t-shirts and other apparel called “Bootleg Redux Grunge.” They said Jacobs had just replaced “Nirvana” with the word “Heaven” and replaced the two eyes with an “M” and a “J,” but had changed little else.

“Defendants’ use of Nirvana’s copyrighted image on and to promote its products is intentional, and is part and parcel of a wider campaign to associate [the Grunge line] with Nirvana, one of the founders of the ‘grunge’ musical genre,” the band’s attorneys wrote at the time.

In their initial complaint, Nirvana’s lawyers said the smiley face had been created by the late Cobain – the conventional wisdom for decades about the logo’s origins. But soon after the case was filed, a former Geffen art director named Robert Fisher jumped into the case: “It is, in fact, Mr. Fisher, who authored the Happy Face, not Mr. Kurt Cobain.”

“For 30 years now, Nirvana has reaped enormous profits from Mr. Fisher’s works through the sale of a wide range of products,” his lawyers wrote. “Assisted by a team of lawyers and managers, Nirvana was able to do so without any compensation to Mr. Fisher by falsely claiming authorship and ownership.”

Since Fisher entered the case, the band’s lawyers have staunchly maintained that it was Cobain who designed the image. At the very least, they’ve argued, if it was Fisher who created the image, he did so when he was employed by Geffen at the time – meaning it was a “work for hire” and the label retained all rights to the image.

In December, Judge Kronstadt largely agreed with Nirvana on that issue. Fisher later sought to appeal that ruling, but the judge denied that motion last month, saying he would need to wait until after Nirvana and Marc Jacobs went to trial to file an appeal.

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