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The Long and Winding Road – Beatles Trademark Lore

By Joseph J. Weissman | Categories: Articles, Intellectual PropertyPrint PDF February 2015

Fame often walks hand and hand with intellectual property rights.  The more iconic a trademark, the more likely the trademark is to become the focus of legal skirmishes.  This is certainly true with respect to The Fab Four.  Just recently, we won a nine-year battle for Hard Rock Cafe relating to Hard Rock’s registration and use of the trademark “Cavern Club” in the United States.

Everyone knows The Beatles, but fewer people know that The Beatles got their start at a small venue in Liverpool, England called The Cavern Club.  The Beatles performed at the original Cavern Club almost 300 times between 1961 and 1963.
In 1966, the original Cavern Club went into bankruptcy.  In 1973, the venue was demolished.  In 1984, a new Cavern Club opened at approximately the same location that was owned and operated by different proprietors.  This new Cavern Club closed as well, however, in 1989.  Two years later, in 1991, a new entity leased the premises of the New Cavern Club and began operating the venue.

Wanting to pay homage to the original Cavern Club that ceased to exist in Liverpool, England in 1973, Hard Rock Cafe began using the “CAVERN CLUB” trademark at its Boston location in the early 1990s and registered the mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  In 2005, the owners of the new Cavern Club brought an action against Hard Rock Cafe at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, claiming that they, not Hard Rock, had superior rights to use the “Cavern Club” mark in the United States.

The case raised interesting issues.  Could the owner and operator of the new Cavern Club in England claim rights in the trademark back to 1961 based on an association with The Beatles simply by operating a club by the same name at approximately the same location?  If so, could these rights cross the Atlantic to the United States?

After briefing and oral argument, the United States Patent and Trademark Office decided these issues in Hard Rock’s favor.  The mere fame of the Beatles with respect to the Cavern Club did not create any rights for the proprietors of the new Cavern Club.  As the new Cavern Club must stand on its own, Hard Rock was well within its rights to register the Cavern Club mark for use at its cafes in the United States.  The owners of the new Cavern Club appealed this decision to the United States District Court, which just recently affirmed on summary judgment.  Thus, ended a nine-year trek down the long, winding road of trademark rights.

The nine years this trademark litigation took to resolve itself is nothing in the annals of Beatles trademark lore.  For 29 years, up through 2007, Apple Computer and Apple Corps (owned by The Beatles) litigated trademark issues relating to The Beatles’ iconic Apple Records label.  At first, the parties settled with Apple Computer agreeing not to enter into the record business.  In 2003, this issue came front and center when Apple Computer introduced iTunes.  Finally, in 2007, the parties settled their long-running dispute.

All this goes to prove why registering and protecting intellectual property rights early on can be so important.  A decision today can affect a company years down the line.

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