Pharrell Williams Takes Will.i.am to Court over Trademark Issues
In today’s crowded entertainment marketplace, performers must look for any and all opportunities to create and promote their brand. Gone are the days when you could release an album and expect your fans to head to the record store. Digital music rules the revenue stream, while most artists must add on significant merchandising, online promotions and touring in order to make the sort of money that artists in the 1990s and earlier decades could command. Even if you correct for inflation, it seems tougher for all but the upper echelon of performer to thrive today, with competing releases from film, television, comic books, gaming and many others industries now readily available on most mobile platforms. Rapper Pharrell Williams clearly understands this new dynamic quite well, and will be taking hip hop artist Will.i.am to court over trademark issues.
Pharrell Williams has seen nothing but success this year. His work in the hip hop duo The Neptunes has seen critical and financial success. He’s also added to his plate with writing, producing and guest vocal work, most notably on two huge summer tracks, “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. But he’s not stopping there. His YouTube channel and website have been using the brand “i am OTHER” to gain additional notoriety. They’re both popular online destinations, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am. Williams was recently served a cease and desist letter from Will.i.am’s camp, suggesting that the “i am” phrasing is causing confusion in the marketplace, leading fans to think Pharrell Williams’ site is somehow affiliated with Will.i.am.
Williams filed a counter complaint in a New York court this week, declaring that his use of “i am” should not be considered a trademark or copyright infringement. In the words of Williams’ camp, the trademark of “i am” that Will.i.am is claiming is weak at best. Apparently, Will.i.am has only registered a copyright for all things “i am” in the clothing industry. Williams was also quick to point out that there are several trademarks surrounding the phrase that have already been registered, all by a vast assortment of additional parties. Williams also maintains that “i am OTHER” is enough of a differentiation from “Will.i.am” that it shouldn’t create any of the confusion he maintains will result.
Will.i.am’s representatives still believe that the web usage has a direct correlation to his name. But they didn’t stop there. They also suggest that Pharrell Williams is liberally borrowing language from the classic children’s book “Green Eggs and Ham”, written by Dr. Seuss. The fact that neither party has a definitive answer means this dispute may go all the way to the New York court system, and extend for a significant amount of time. It won’t stop Will.i.am or Pharrell Williams from continuing their use of SonicBids and promoting their upcoming releases and tour information. But the fact that both artists are so willing to see this process through underlines just how important branding is to today’s musicians. It’s difficult enough to differentiate your offerings in the modern music industry, and both parties have done an admirable job of separating themselves from the pack. Whoever ends up winning the case may see it as a moral victory, more than as a chance to reap some major financial windfall.