will.i.am Brings the Action - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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will.i.am Brings the Action

will.i.am Brings the Action

A trademark showdown between hip hop giants Pharrell and will.i.am just got uglier. Earlier this year, will.I.am sent Pharrell a notice of opposition challenging his use of “I Am” in Pharrell’s latest venture, I am Other Entertainment, which describes itself as a collaborative bringing together of music, fashion, tech, and media visionaries together under one roof guided by an individuality fueled philosophy.  However, despite rumors that will.i.am had filed an actual lawsuit, he had not gone further than the cease and desist letters when Pharrell took things into his own hands.  On behalf of “I Am Other,” Pharrell requested declaratory judgment on the issue seeking a judge’s approval that his “I Am Other” brand would not create a likelihood of confusion between the two hip hop moguls.

will.i.am is now countersuing for an undisclosed amount of money, stating that he is doing what any trademark owner would do to protect his brand. The I am Other mission says, “don’t just be anyone, be yourself, be other”, yet will.i.am feels that Pharrell is not trying to be other, but him, and thus infringing upon his trademark.

will.i.am’s claim is that consumers will falsely believe that he may be involved in the “I am Other” collaborative because the name incorporates his mark “I Am.” Despite will.i.am’s cited use of the “I Am” mark in different endeavors such as his “I am Angel Foundation”, he will have a difficult time showing that Pharrell has infringed upon his goodwill in creating in this new trademark. As Pharrell’s attorneys have pointed out, “I Am” has been used extensively throughout popular culture and the music industry to a point where it will likely be considered diluted, thus not holding the requisite weight to constitute a defendable trademark.

To bolster his case, will.iam’s attorney has brought Pharrell’s alleged long history of trademark infringement history into the mix. Among Pharrell’s stated offenses are naming his entertainment group “Star Trak,” which is being portrayed as an obvious infringement on the Star Trek trademark; his underground hit entitled “Pink Slime” featuring Mac Miller, infringing on Mattell’s trademark for their toy “Slime” (although more likely a reference to the fiasco McDonalds and other fast food aficionados faced over using a controversial mix of beef trimmings dubbed “pink slime” in their burgers). The most contentious of the claims is a current dispute over the Pharrell produced summer jam “Blurred Lines,” which Bridgeport Music Inc. is claiming infringes upon the George Clinton and the Funkadelic’s song “Sexy Ways.”

This isn’t will.i.am’s first foray into the wild world of intellectual property disputes. Infringement accusations go as far back as 2007 when will.i.am remixed his hit “I Got it From My Momma” using Daft Punk’s wildly popular electro anthem “Around the World” without permission. Rather than being an isolated incident, it has been a recurrent theme in will.i.am’s career of creating club bangers. As pointed out by the Hollywood Reporter, will.i.am ironically settled a claim in May for sampling a George Clinton song without permission, similar to the cited current dispute with Pharrell.  Most recently this spring, he was also tangled in a feud over a beat sampled in his song “Let’s Go” featuring Chris Brown.  will.i.am admitted to taking a beat from “Rebound”, without permission from house producers and presidents of Anjunabeats, Arty and Mat Zo.

We have yet to see how this will play out for will.i.am although this attempt to paint Pharrell as a notorious trademark thief likely was not the best strategy for a musician with a career history fraught with infringement claims. For now, it is up to the New York federal courts to decide if will.i.am has a legitimate trademark claim over “I am”. In the meantime, other artists and creative executives are waiting with bated breath to see if “the”, “you are”, “I said”, and other terms are still available for usage or if they need to lawyer up.

Daniela Cassorla

Daniela Cassorla is a second year law student at Fordham Law School and an IPLJ Staff member. She became interested in entertainment law after working in the film industry during college. A born and bred Manhattanite, she is a movie junky, tech nerd and a lover of all sounds indie, electronic, or hip hop.