There’s no celebrity like a dead celebrity, at least as far as brand value is concerned
Yoko Ono Lennon recently forced a soft drinks business to rebrand, accusing it of misappropriating her husband’s name. The manufacturers and distributors of JOHN LEMON fizzy drinks have agreed to call their products ON LEMON after ‘cease and desist’ letters sent on behalf of Ms Ono. Cue the usual Yoko-bashing from internet armchair warriors keen to point out how much she personally benefits from John’s legacy, even though (seeing as how she’s his widow and all) it shouldn’t be too surprising that she has inherited his intellectual property rights and has a keen interest in enforcing them.
The soft drinks in question were being sold under a trade mark registration for JOHN LEMON obtained by one ‘John Lemon Robert Orszulak’ of Katowice, Poland. We seriously doubt this is what his parents christened him and we wonder how much this is all just a publicity stunt or an attempt to get away with something? One of the many ‘it’s not fair’ arguments Mr Orszulak and his colleagues have been running in the copious press coverage of this story is how their registration predates Yoko’s own registration for JOHN LENNON and so should take priority. Hmm…
Another one is that this is all a big misunderstanding and they never intended to reference the former Beatle at all (in which case the use of John Lennon’s image and lyrics in their advertising was just pure coincidence then?) They’ve also been at pains to point out that they’re a family business, a start-up and not in any position to defend themselves against ‘someone who is worth many, many millions.’ Well, not when you haven’t got a legal leg to stand on, certainly.
Although there are no such things as ‘image rights’ in UK law, it is possible to protect someone’s commercial reputation and John Lennon undoubtedly fits that bill. It’s also fair to point out that richer litigants enjoy an appreciable advantage over poorer ones, but to reframe that as the system being deliberately skewed in favour of overbearing Goliaths against plucky Davids is to seriously miss the point. It remains an inescapable aspect of brand protection law that anyone with a brand so famous as to be worth ripping off (and therefore worth protecting) is likely to be in a very good position to do so.
Mr Orszulak is not the only person – and not even the first – to think up the Lennon/Lemon pun (one which John himself, the author of ‘A Spaniard in the Works’, would no doubt heartily enjoy). Nevertheless, having a good joke is no defence against trade mark infringement or passing off, and nor is being a cheeky start-up. Even Brewdog have had to learn that lesson! Given that JOHN LEMON drinks were available in lemonade, cola and pear flavours, we’re just thankful they didn’t try persuading us all to ‘give pears a chance…’