Earth, Wind & Fire legal fight offers lessons for tribute acts, cover bands

Earth, Wind & Fire’s lawsuit against a tribute band could redefine legal boundaries for all tribute acts and cover bands.

by Bobby Owsinski of Music 3.0

Tribute bands are big these days, since so many classic rock bands have stopped touring, their tickets cost too much for the average consumer, or they’re never coming to your town. Name the legacy band and they probably have a tribute band out playing their songs, maybe even better than the original band itself. This is totally legal, by the way, except when they try to deceive people into thinking that it’s the original band playing. Earth, Wind And Fire just settled a lawsuit with a tribute act for doing just that.

The tribute act “Earth, Wind and Fire Legacy Reunion” used the original band’s logo, word mark, and other intellectual property in advertising and promotional material, and that’s a legal no-no that led to a infringement lawsuit by the real owners of Earth, Wind and Fire trademark. Two months ago a judge ruled in favor of the band, so the tribute version decided to settle before the costs got out of hand. No figure was released on how much the settlement was for.

Apparently, Earth, Wind, and Fire Legacy Reunion had a few players that had played with the band sometime during its long history. The real Earth, Wind and Fire has three original members – bassist Verdine White, percussionist Ralph Johnson, and singer Phillip Bailey

That said, these original members don’t actually own the band’s name, which is owned by the sons of band founder Maurice White, who passed away in 2016.

The way players and bands learn to play is usually doing cover songs in clubs, which is totally legal as the burden of licensing the songs falls on the club owner. A tribute band is a little trickier in that the band usually has to at least allude to the name of the original band and brand in order to entice customers to see them. Where things cross the line is when a tribute band makes customers believe that it’s seeing the original band without making it clear that it’s only a copy.

As with all club bands, the most successful ones play music that customers know, and a tribute band does that in spades. That means there will always be a place for them, as long as consumers know exactly what they’re getting.

Bobby Owsinski is a producer/engineer, author, blogger, podcaster, and coach. He has authored 24 books on music production, music, the music business, music AI, and social media.

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