Nirvana Sued for Circles of Hell Image by Heir of Artist

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Iconic rock band Nirvana may be All Apologies after facing a copyright infringement lawsuit over an illustration of the upper circles of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, which has been used on the group’s merchandise for over 30 thirty years.

The lawsuit, obtained by Rolling Stone magazine, centers on a C.W. Scott-Giles illustration from a 1949 English translation of Inferno.

It was filed by Jocelyn Susan Bundy is the granddaughter of Scott-Giles, who Rolling Stone identifies as the “sole surviving relative and sole successor-in-title to the copyright in the works created by her late grandfather.”

The drawing in question is a diagram of Upper Hell — the first five circles Dante ventures through in the Inferno with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. Scott-Giles drew this piece and nine others for Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was first published in the United Kingdom 1949. This past January, the suit claims, Bundy discovered that Nirvana had been using an image described as “virtually identical” to Scott-Giles’ illustration on vinyl records, clothing, key fobs, mugs, patches, buttons, and other merchandise sold in the United States and around the world.

The lawsuit also alleges that Nirvana and parties acting on the band’s behalf have made “false claims of ownership” of the illustration, citing copyright notices on the artwork.

The image is iconic in its own right. Original vintage Nirvana t-shirts featuring the diagram sell for hundreds of dollars online. (Personally, I prefer the drab green version, but hey, come as you are.)

The lawsuit even specifically alleges that Kurt Cobain is credited by the band and its corporate representatives as the creator of the illustration. That’s something a lot of fans have believed for a long time, although as the blog Stereogum points out, there was some dispute and discussion over that point on Reddit a few years back.

Here’s an excerpt from the suit:

On or about January 20, 2021, Plaintiff discovered that Defendants NIRVANA and Live Nation Merchandise are (and have been) licensing, promoting, selling, manufacturing, and distributing vinyl records, t-shirts, sweaters, hoodies, key fobs, mugs, patches, buttons, and other merchandise items depicting an image virtually identical to the Illustration both in the U.S. and abroad.

On or about March 11, 2021, Plaintiff discovered that, sometime after February 13, 2021, Defendant Merch Traffic also started promoting, licensing, selling, and distributing Infringing Products in the U.S. and abroad.

Further research revealed that some of the unauthorized uses of the Illustration on NIRVANA-branded merchandise date as far back as 1989. Further research also revealed that over the years, the band NIRVANA and parties acting on its behalf have routinely made false claims of ownership of the copyright in the Illustration by placing false copyright notices on the Infringing Products in substantially this form ‘© [Year] Nirvana’.

Finally, in documents filed in two other copyright actions before this Court, Defendant NIRVANA has implied that Kurt Cobain created the Illustration or, in the alternative, that the Illustration is in the public domain in the United States, and that, therefore, NIRVANA and its licensees are free to use it without authorization or compensation. NIRVANA and some of the other Defendants have maintained this position in their responses to Plaintiff’s continuing requests to cease their wrongful conduct in the U.S. and abroad.

Bundy is demanding that the merchandise production be halted immediately, and an accounting of all profit from the illustration to date be produced. Read more from Rolling Stone here.

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