When is a Banana Not a Banana?

When it’s a trademark.

On January 13, 1966, Andy Warhol pulled out all the stops for his debut of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of events featuring his films, and performances from Factory Super Stars. Performing at “Uptight” the opening event which took place at the New York Society of Clinical Psychiatry, a new band, The Velvet Underground were instantly made by the Warhol star-maker machinery.

Taking the band under his wing, Andy Warhol produced their first album pressed in 1967, The Velvet Underground & Nico, for which he also created and signed the now famous banana graphic. Though the band broke up in 1972, Lou Reed and John Cale have, they say, continuously used this image in marketing and promotion for 25 years, most recently to promote a1989 re-union tour and record, Songs for Drella, which they made in tribute to Warhol.

Is this The Velvet Underground's trademark.

On Jan 11, 2012, The Velvet Underground filed a suit against the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts (AWF), essentially the Warhol estate, accusing them of illegally leveraging copy rights to the image which they never registered officially, and of licensing it to third parties “in a manner likely to cause confusion or mistake as to the association of Velvet Underground with the goods sold in commerce by such third parties.”

Suggesting that, with so many graphics to choose from, The Andy Warhol Foundation can only be using the banana to capitalize on its association with The Velvet Underground, the band seeks an injunction against the AWF, to make them stop licensing the banana to third parties. They also demand a declaration that the Warhol Foundation has no copyright interest in the design, are demanding “unspecified damages”, and a share of the profits made by the Warhol Foundation from any licensing deals.

“The symbol has become so identified with The Velvet Underground … that members of the public, particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of The Velvet Underground,” say the plaintiffs who are claiming a trademark on the image.

A pop-culture savvy friend of mine begs to differ. Social media consultant, Nichelle Stephens says, “There are two whole generations that would disagree. Gen Ys and Millennials don’t even think about album art anymore. They’d just think it’s a Warhol.

Also curious is the claim that the AWF have “no copyright interest” in the banana. Apparently the claim by Reed/Cale is that since Warhol never obtained a formal copyright got the graphic, and subsequently the AWF published the image many times, it is “in the public domain.”

Now, I’m left with many questions which I plan to answer in a follow up…

Doesn’t the artist own the copyright whether they registered it or not?
And doesn’t a copyright hold for the lifetime of the artist +75 years?
And wouldn’t that copyright go to the artist’s heirs, again, whether registered or not?
And if the heirs were using the image simultaneously with someone else, couldn’t they retain trademark rights if their use were equal to the others?

On the other hand, if a copyright is never claimed but the art has been gifted to a record company or a band, or, maybe was a ‘work for hire’ then wouldn’t the copyright belong to the beneficiary or employer?

And one more question: can one claim a trademark on an image they never registered, and that has been in the public domain?

I’m confused as to why no reports thus far address these questions. I plan to.

Some Answers: Banana Fanna Faux

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