What’s in A-Name?

The High Tech Law Institute hosts a concert by Blues singer Lady A, and explores the hurdles she’s facing in her trademark legal battle against Lady A, the country band.

What’s in A-Name?
Jazz singer Lady A’s claim to the name includes a website she created in 2002. / Image courtesy Lady A

An all-white country band took a stand against racism by dropping its racist moniker—and launched a legal battle with a Black blues singer who’s been performing under the same name for more than 20 years.

It is a “terrible look” said Santa Clara School of Law professor Tyler Ochoa about the court case Lady Antebellum—or Lady A, as of June 2020—brought against Anita “Lady A” White, regardless of the veracity of their legal claims. Especially since it’s tacked onto their original efforts to be proactively anti-racist—“antebellum,” you see, meaning “before a war,” is most often used in America to romanticize the time before the Civil War when slavery was legal.

An expert in copyright law and rights of publicity, Ochoa laid out the case in an event hosted by the law school’s High Tech Law Institute in September. His lecture was followed by a performance by Lady A, the singer.

“The case is a real-world example of a priority conflict over a trademark where both sides have good arguments,” Ochoa says of why he was excited to discuss the case in the webinar. “Most cases concerning priority to a trademark are clear-cut in favor of one side or the other; this case is much more evenly balanced than most.”

Basically, both parties have solid legal claims to the “Lady A” nickname, as Ochoa outlined.

For example, White has a strong claim of common law trademark rights—particularly in Seattle, where she primarily performs—going back to at least 2002, when she established her website, ladyababyblues.com. However, the band did file a federal registration of the name for entertainment services dating back to 2010, when they caught on that fans often referred to them by the nickname “Lady A.”

The court brouhaha began in July 2020, less than a month after the band officially changed its name to Lady A after 14 years. They filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment—essentially, if granted, they’d be legally cleared of any wrongdoing—after White publicly decried the name change and expressed zero interest in sharing the moniker.

White is adamant that coexistence is impossible, at least for her. The much more widely-known, well-funded band would push her out of web searches and music streaming services, she said; moreover, she does not have the same resources they do to rebrand or re-market herself. White has since countersued the band, claiming trademark infringement and unfair competition.

Addressing White’s argument against the unlikelihood of equitable coexistence, Ochoa said it could be difficult to prove a likelihood of confusion since she is not generally well-known among consumers across the U.S.; at least, not as well-known as the Grammy-winning band. Plus, there’s no evidence the band knew about White and knowing infringed on White’s name in 2010 when they registered the nickname.

However, he told White, “regardless of the registration or whether they didn’t know about you previously, they know about you now. And they have the marketing power to rebrand in a way that would be difficult for you.”

White, when reached for comment after the event, said she found the lecture “provided valuable legal insight for young professionals and could be used to help future musicians protect their rights.”

“It’s the principle,” she said during the webinar, before taking over the screen to sing a few songs, including the original “The Truth is Loud,” which she wrote following the death of George Floyd. It was his killing that sparked nationwide protests and prompted performers—like Lady A the band—to take steps to be more actively anti-racist. In her deep, gravelly voice, she sang, “Just how much do you think we can stand? This change has taken way too long. The truth is loud, but do you hear me? … Always taking, but this ain’t your land.”

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