Legal Eagle or Fairly Mocked Bird? Don Henley Wings Into Court

“He’s a tortured artist. Used to be in the Eagles. Now he whines. Like a wounded beagle. Poet of despair! Pumped up with hot air!’ Don Henley Must Die, by Mojo Nixon

Ask a serious music fan about Eagles and their singer Don Henley, and you’re likely to hear sentiments not so different from Mojo Nixon’s satiric verses in “Don Henley Must Die.” Sure, Mr. Henley has been outspoken in support of artists’ rights, testifying before Congress on a symphony of issues relating to recording industry practices. And his positions on environmental issues, reflected in his stewardship of the Waldon Woods Project, have been pristine.
So why do music fans like me–whose tastes swing between the Eagle’s forerunners and many of the band’s progeny–cringe at the thought of Don Henley–the man and his music? Why, when we hear him crooning on “The Boys of Summer,” do we immediately pray for an early frost; for the top to go up and wipers turned on in old Don’s California idyll? Could it be that the maitre d’ at the Hotel California, the head honcho in that band of Desperadoes, has seen one too many Tequila Sunrises and simply lost his sense of humor?
Judging from Mr. Henley’s latest legal foray, it does not take a 12-part podcast from NPR to conclude that when it comes to his “Right of Publicity” Don Henley has checked his funnybone at the courthouse door.
Here’s the story. For years, menswear companies from J. Crew to Joe A. Bank have sold long-sleeved, cotton shirts with crew collars and three or four button fronts. These casual shirts are called Henleys–taking their name from the rarefied world of rowing and regattas on the Thames near Oxford. And for decades, if not centuries, “to don” has meant the act of pulling on a uniform–such as a jersey and, yes, a Henley tee. So Englishmen may have been donning Henleys since Henry VIII serenaded Ann Boleyn with “Welcome to the Hotel Tower of London, such a lonely place.”
Henry, being king of court, could dispense bad tunes and swift justice however he wished when spurned by a wife or rival.
Don Henley, however, must resort to the U.S. courts to protect his name. And that’s what he did when he took offense at an advertisement by U.S. clothier Duluth Trading, a company known for edgy, sometimes cheeky ads for traditional clothing geared to tradesman and outdoor enthusiasts featuring Giant Angry Beavers, Groping Grizzlies, and Unruly Bushes. One ad, for Duluth’s “Long-Tail Tee,” even proposes a “Cure for Plumbers’ Butt.” Cheeky indeed.
But when, in advertising its long-sleeve button pullover shirt, Duluth urged customers to “don a Henley, take it easy,” the Eagles singer/drummer didn’t appreciate the humor. Instead of laughing with Duluth he sued Duluth–in California, where else? Henley alleges in his complaint that Duluth’s ad for Henley shirts deliberately invokes Mr. Henley’s name and his association with the Eagles, and are aimed at “exploiting the celebrity of Mr. Henley and the Eagles’ hit record.” Mr. Henley’s complaint also alleges that consumers, not Henley, are the real victims: “Large numbers of consumers . . . will unquestionably believe that Mr. Henley is associated with and/or has endorsed {Duluth]and its products . . .”
Duluth, for its part, seems to be taking things in stride, as its whimsical ads might suggest. “The advertisement is obviously a joke (something we presume not even Mr. Henley disputes),” Duluth wrote in asking the court to toss Henley’s suit. “It is self-evident that the use that was made of Mr. Henley’s name was a joke intended to highlight the coincidence that [he] shares his last name with a ubiquitous casual shirt and that his first name means ‘to wear.'”
So we have Duluth’s claims of Freedom of Speech and Expression lined up against Mr. Henley’s right to protect his name and image from being used to confuse or deceive consumers and his further right to control who may or may not exploit his name for commercial gain. There’s just enough traction on both sides that the court may have less than a peaceful, easy feeling in deciding who’s right. The outcome likely will turn on whether the court finds Duluth’s ad “transformative”–that is, did the parodist or satirist infuse the work with enough creativity and original expression to merit the First Amendment’s protection. In other words, will the judge or jury get the joke, and think the joke is clever enough to side with Duluth? Or will they find that the joke is just a tepid excuse for identity theft. Cases like this usually settle, so we won’t likely know how and where the California court would draw the line. But we can safely say, whatever the outcome, that Duluth Trading is a far cry from all those “Desperadoes” Henley and his compadres glorified through their music. Perhaps the irony is lost on Henley; the man who entreated notorious thieves and killers Frank and Jesse James to “keep on riding, riding, riding,” has a short fuse when it comes to Duluth using a clever pun to sell Henley tees. But after living in the fast lane so long, Henley apparently know only one way to react when provoked–take it to the limit–one more time.

UPDATE: On January 22, the Judge denied Duluth’s request to throw the case out based on its so-called obviously-a-joke-defense. In a terse ruling, the Judge wrote: “Even assuming for the sake of argument that the transformative use test of Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 25 Cal. 4th 387 (2001) applies, Defendant has not established that its use of Plaintiff’s name – and the name of one of his band’s most famous songs – in its advertisement was sufficiently transformative on its face that a motion to dismiss should be granted.” Tranlation from legalese to plain-speak: Just because “Take it easy-don a henly” may be funny, doesn’t automatically mean Duluth is off the hook. To paraphraase “Take It Easy,” the Court did what Duluth didn’t want it to do: it said “maybe.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “It is the ability to take a joke, not make one, that proves you have a sense of humor.”
Max Eastman

2 Comments

Filed under copyright, IP, Right of Publicity, trademarks, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Legal Eagle or Fairly Mocked Bird? Don Henley Wings Into Court

  1. Pingback: Legal Eagle or Fairly Mocked Bird? Don Henley Wings Into Court | softrights

  2. melit7@verizon.net

    Wh

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