On his 1989 album New York, Lou Reed sang, “No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything / They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard….” And yet shortly before he died, Reed (along with John Cale) did employ the services of an attorney in order to sue their old chum Andy Warhol (well, sort of). To be precise, in 2012 the Velvet Underground sued the Andy Warhol Foundation for improper use of that famous banana logo that Warhol designed for the Velvets’ first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico.
It’s all kind of a sad coda to the uneasy partnership that Warhol and the Velvets struck way back in 1966.
The offending iPhone case
So in 2012 the Andy Warhol Foundation approved the manufacture of a bunch of iPhone and iPod accessories using the famous banana image, and John Cale and Lou Reed really didn’t like that the organization had sought to, ahem, “deceive the public” into thinking the Velvet Underground offered “sponsorship or approval” of the items, which included “a $149.95 shoulder bag and a $59.95 protective sleeve.” As stated in the lawsuit The Velvet Underground v. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.,
VU’s use and application of the design to symbolize the group and its whole body of work has been exclusive, continuous and uninterrupted for more than 25 years. . . . Members of the public, and particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of the Velvet Underground. . . . It is not merely the graphic reproduction by Andy Warhol of a piece of fruit: it is the ‘iconic’ VU banana.”
That was in January of 2012. But don’t get the idea that the Andy Warhol Foundation took the legal challenge lying down over the next few months. For instance, in September 2012 it was reported that in court papers filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the Foundation claimed that the band’s use of the famous image in licensing deals “constitutes unclean hands and illegal trademark use.” The Warhol Foundation claimed that it “enjoys priority of trademark use in the Warhol Banana Design” because the group “never made a bona-fide source-indicating trademark use” of the graphic.
Somewhat sensibly, the Foundation claimed that it owns the rights to Warhol’s name and signature, although given that the signature in question is a stylized font-representation of Warhol’s name, I’d be curious how the exact wording of the legal filing ran. In their counter-filing, the Warhol Foundation made the mirror image of VU’s original claim, stating that the group’s use of Warhol’s name “is likely to confuse consumers into believing that the Warhol Foundation or other authorized representative of Andy Warhol has sponsored, approved or authorized the good or service in question.” Exactly: there’s no lower blow than implying that the Andy Warhol Foundation would ever, ever authorize some cheesy Warhol “shoulder bag” or “protective sleeve”—which, let’s recall, was exactly what they did.
In May of this year, the two parties reached a settlement.
So thorny! Call me crazy (or Solomon), but it sounds like a situation where both parties have some claim over the copyright, so maybe a shared copyright is appropriate, if that’s even a thing. The details of the settlement, as is usually the case in such matters, have not been disclosed.
Here’s a brief clip about the origins of the Warhol/VU partnership from Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film from the PBS American Masters series: