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Nirvana, Marc Jacobs Settle Copyright Suit Over T-Shirt That Allegedly Ripped Off Smiley Face Logo

After several years, and a few unexpected twists, Nirvana and Marc Jacobs have settled a copyright dispute over the band’s smiley face logo, which also raised questions about the origins of the famous symbol.

Nirvana first brought the suit in Dec. 2018, accusing Marc Jacobs of copyright and trademark infringement over a T-shirt they said ripped off the band’s signature happy face design — with X’d out eyes, squiggly smile, and tongue sticking out. The Marc Jacobs shirt (which was part of the fashion company’s “Bootleg Redux Grunge” collection) featured the letters M and J for eyes, instead of X’s; and the word “Nirvana” was replaced by “Heaven,” with a type-face roughly similar to the one long-used by Nirvana. 

According to Nirvana lore, late frontman Kurt Cobain created the smiley face logo, but Marc Jacobs eventually filed a countersuit calling that claim into question. Their suit noted that surviving members, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, previously testified in depositions that they did not know who made the smiley face. 

And soon an alternate artist, former Geffen Records art director Robert Fisher, entered the fray, claiming he came up with the logo. “For 30 years now, Nirvana has reaped enormous profits from Mr. Fisher’s works through the sale of a wide range of products,” Fisher’s lawyers previously wrote (via Billboard). “Assisted by a team of lawyers and managers, Nirvana was able to do so without any compensation to Mr. Fisher by falsely claiming authorship and ownership.”

In a joint court filing yesterday, July 9, all three parties confirmed that they’d agreed upon a settlement. No details were given, with the filing only stating that everyone had agreed to a “Mediators Proposal” submitted by a magistrate judge, Steve Kim. The parties are currently in the process of drafting a proper settlement agreement, which will be completed over the next three weeks. 

Lawyers for Nirvana, Marc Jacobs, and Fisher did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment. 

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It’s unclear whether the settlement will make any particular statement on the origins of the smiley face logo — and, if it does, whether that information will be made public. After Fisher entered the case, Nirvana’s lawyers rebuffed his authorship claim and insisted that Cobain designed the logo. They also put up the argument that, even if Fisher did draw the logo, it was while he was a Geffen employee, meaning the label would retain the rights to the design.

That argument earned the approval of the judge overseeing the case in a ruling last December. Fisher had planned to appeal, but the judge said at the time that he would have to wait until Nirvana and Marc Jacobs’ original lawsuit went to trial.

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