On June 20, 2005, my faux French band Les Sans Culottes showed up for our strangest gig to date: an appearance in federal court.
I can only imagine what was going through the mind of the Honorable Richard C. Casey. Here was a judge who had presided over numerous prestigious cases (he rendered the verdict declaring the Bush administration's 2003 partial-birth abortion ban unconstitutional). He now commanded the bench before a splintered band that, for the last seven years, had dressed in psychedelic outfits, playing loud music in stinky bars while pretending to be French. I suspect Judge Casey was thinking the same thing I was: How did I get here?
I can't speak for the judge, but Les Sans Culottes' journey to federal court began in 1998, when we came together to play music from the '60s French pop yé yé era. The band, whose initial ambition was to provide some dance music and enjoy free drinks, slowly evolved: We released several albums, charted on college radio, were featured on NPR, and graduated from Brooklyn dive bars to headlining venues like New York's Bowery Ballroom.
Despite such success, we had our share of personnel issues. Band members fought, quit, and were occasionally voted off the island. When you spend so much time together, you become like family—in other words, dysfunctional. But what happens when relationships become so toxic that divorce is the only option? Who gets custody of the band's name?
There was always a healthy dose of friction among Les Sans Culottes, but things began to deteriorate seriously about a year and a half ago. Some readers may recall my Slate "Diary" from April 2004, when I alluded to the antagonism between myself (stage name Jean-Luc Retard) and the band's lead male singer (stage name Clermont Ferrand). Ferrand wasn't thrilled with my diary and was quite furious with my suggestion that he was responsible for a foul smell on stage ("12:17 a.m. Middle of set. Smell something hideous from stage left. Think, 'I wonder if Bill had time to eat a fish taco before the show.' "). But we were in a faux French rock 'n' roll band from Brooklyn—having a sense of humor was part of the deal, or so I thought. He didn't quite see it that way.
Nearly a year later, things between Ferrand and me remained contentious. (He had reportedly threatened me with violence if I attempted to share the stage with him again.) But I wasn't the only disgruntled Culotte: Céline Dijon, our star female singer and the only real Frenchie, said she felt so tyrannized by Ferrand that she bade adieu. And Ferrand allegedly told our guitarist and primary songwriter, Cal D'Hommage, he would be dismissed from the band if he missed practice to attend a Passover holiday family reunion. The merde had hit the fan.
Rather than let le bateau sink under the misdirection of its captain, we opted for mutiny. We discussed an intriguing, revolutionary (our name, after all, was taken from the French Revolution's ill-clad posse known as the sans-culottes) idea: a coup d'état.
We notified Ferrand via e-mail (or sent him to the e-uillotine, if you will) that we would be continuing as Les Sans Culottes sans him. Days later, Ferrand sent us a cease-and-desist letter claiming we were in violation of his self-proclaimed "de facto" trademark (at the time, nobody had officially registered the trademark; although, once ousted, Ferrand did submit the application). Despite the letter, we played a packed show at New York's Lower East Side club Sin-é. We thought Ferrand might show up and cause trouble, so, as a joke (mostly) Céline Dijon arrived on stage wearing handcuffs and a Kevlar bulletproof vest. The gig was violence-free, and we reveled in our newfound liberation.
The next day, we got served: Ferrand was suing us in the Southern District of New York. That's federal court. Did I mention that Clermont Ferrand is a lawyer?
Unlike copyright law—intended to protect the creator of a work—the primary function of trademark law is to protect the public from potential confusion arising from multiple versions of the same product. If Les Sans Culottes performed without Ferrand, or Ferrand formed another Les Sans Culottes with new musicians (which he quickly did), would the public be "confused"? Would the real fake French band please stand up?
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