Thelonious Monk Estate’s Case Over Beer Brand Survives Dismissal

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

The son of jazz legend Thelonious Monk beat back an attempt to dismiss a lawsuit over the use of Monk’s name and image for a beer brand.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said Jan. 31 that Thelonious Monk Jr.’s complaint sufficiently pleaded false endorsement under federal law, violation of the rights to the musician’s persona under New Jersey state law, and unjust enrichment under California state law.

Some states recognize enforceable rights in the identities of deceased celebrities. Companies that build value in brands based on celebrity identities may find it difficult to hold onto valuable brands if they fall out with the estates that control those rights.

The court said it was too early in the litigation to consider North Coast Brewing Co.’s arguments that the Monk estate gave its irrevocable consent to use the name for its Brother Thelonious Belgian style abbey ale, and that the brewery’s trademark rights had become incontestable.

Question of License or Consent

Monk’s son became administrator of the musician’s estate after his death in 1982. North Coast began distributing the Brother Thelonious beer after agreeing with the estate to contribute a share of the profits to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.

In 2016, the estate gave notice that it was ending the licensing agreement. However, according to the court, the brewery argued that the arrangement wasn’t a licensing agreement at all, but rather a case in which the estate simply consented to the brewery’s use of Monk’s name and image, a consent that couldn’t be revoked.

Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. issued the court’s ruling.

Schneider Rothman Intellectual Property Law Group PLLC represented the estate. McDermott Will & Emery LLP and Polsinelli LLP represented the brewery.

Monk v. N. Coast Brewing Co. , 2018 BL 33083, N.D. Cal., No. 17-5015, 1/31/18

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at amazumdar@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bloomberglaw.com

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