Who Owns the Name Led Zeppelin?

It was recently announced that the legendary British rock band Led Zeppelin may begin recording and touring again for the first time in decades.  The original group, consisting of singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and percussionist John Bonham, began performing in the late 1960’s. 

After the untimely death of Bonham in 1980, Led Zeppelin broke up and didn’t perform together again until a benefit concert in December 2007, when Jason Bonham replaced his late father on drums.  However, it’s unlikely that one of the original members of the group will be performing with the other three.  Robert Plant, a successful solo artist in his own right, has announced that he will not be touring or recording with Led Zeppelin. 

Since Plant’s vocals were a unique part of the Led Zeppelin sound, some have wondered whether the new group can still call itself Led Zeppelin.  This raises the legal question:  Who owns the name Led Zeppelin?  Under U.S. trademark law, the name of a performing group can serve as both a trademark identifying tangible goods (namely, sound and/or visual recordings), and a service mark identifying intangible services (namely, live entertainment). 

Registration of the trademark LED ZEPPELIN wasn’t obtained in the United States until late 1998, nearly two decades after the death of John Bonham.  According to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) records, the registrants of this mark are Robert A. Plant, James P. Page, John Baldwin and Joan Hudson.  Who, you might ask, are John Baldwin and Joan Hudson?  The USPTO lists John Baldwin as also being known as John Paul Jones (the group’s bass player) and Joan Hudson as the trustee of the estate of John H. Bonham (Led Zeppelin’s original drummer). 

As far as live performances are concerned, no federal registration for the service mark LED ZEPPELIN was sought in 1998, since at that time the group hadn’t provided those services for nearly two decades.  Does a band have to be as famous as LED ZEPPELIN in order to get federal trademark or service mark registration?  Not necessarily, but there are a few criteria that need to be met before registration can issue.  First of all, the group has to be involved in interstate commerce.  Any group that has never performed outside its own state probably cannot get federal service mark registration of its name.  Likewise, a band that has only sold recordings inside its own state probably cannot receive federal trademark registration of its name for those recordings.  Once the interstate commerce hurdle has been crossed, service mark registration of the name of a group (i.e. in association in live entertainment) can be obtained if it can be shown that the group’s name identifies and distinguishes the services, and not merely the group itself.  

Obtaining federal registration of a group’s name as a trademark (i.e. in association with recordings) is a little more difficult; “one hit wonders” (groups that only make one recording) need not apply.  Evidence must be submitted that the group’s name appears on at least two different works. 

In addition, the applicant must prove that the name is a “source identifier.” This can be done by submitting proof of either:  1) promotion or recognition of the name by others; or 2) control by the applicant over the nature and quality of the goods (i.e. the recordings).  

Getting back to the original question (Who owns the name LED ZEPPELIN?), the band members may have entered into other contractual agreements regarding the name of the group, but as far as U.S. trademark law is concerned, the owners of the name LED ZEPPELIN, at least for recordings, are the registrants listed in the records of the Patent and Trademark Office.

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