Nirvana in Ongoing Legal Dispute Over Who Created Band’s Iconic ‘Smiley Face’ Logo

A new twist has entered the more than three-year copyright and trademark battle with designer Marc Jacobs over the use of Nirvana’s smiley face logo. Graphic artist Robert Fisher, who worked with the band in the early ’90s, and was also recently involved in the Nevermind The lawsuit over the band’s 1994 album cover, claims he coined the iconic logo, not the late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain.

On Jan. 24, Fisher, who worked as an art director at Nirvana’s label DGC/Geffen Records during the time the band was beginning to ascend, claimed that he created the distinct smiley face logo with cross-eyes and a crooked grinned as a T-shirt in 1991 at the band’s request.

Lawyers for Nirvana assert that the band’s company, Nirvana LLC, has full ownership of the image and that it was single-handedly created by Cobain that year and registered for copyright in 1993. Nirvana obtained Copyright Registration No. VA0000564166 from the United States Copyright Office, which they titled “Happy Face,” a t-shirt design using the smiley face logo, band name, and a slogan on the back. The logo has been used on Nirvana merchandise for more than 30 years.

“In the 30 years since the design’s creation and Nirvana’s exploitation of it,” read a statement by the band’s lawyers, “Fisher never claimed any interest in it.”

This isn’t the first time Fisher has been involved in legal action against the band. He was recently dropped as a defendant in the ongoing Nirvana lawsuit started by Elden Spencer, who was featured on the band’s 1994 album Nevermind. In 2021, Spencer claimed that the photograph taken of him naked as an infant was pornographic and caused him “extreme and permanent emotional distress with physical manifestations.”

Official Nirvana T-Shirt (Photo: Nirvana/shop.nirvana.com)

Before Fisher was dropped as a defendant on Dec. 22, he included a statement featuring an early mock-up he created of the Nevermind album cover concept showing another baby swimming. He claimed that he told the band the genitalia could be removed from Spencer’s photograph and suggested that the band made the deliberate decision to use a more explicit image.

In 2020, Fisher interjected in the lawsuit between Nirvana and Marc Jacobs, which was initially filed by the band in December of 2018, over the use of the logo on the designer’s T-Shirt, part of his Redux Grunge Collection. The shirt featured the smiley face logo with the words “Heaven” instead of Nirvana. Nirvana fashion label, sued the Jacobs countersued the band’s surviving members drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic, who previously testedified in depositions that they were unaware of who created the smiley face logo. Nirvana LLC filed a declaration that all parties within the band’s company agree that it was created by Cobain, who died in 1994.

In his countersuit, Jacobs claimed that there was no proof of the real designer of the logo since the alleged creator was Cobain. “The apparent absence of any living person with first-hand knowledge of the creation of the allegedly copyrighted work in question,” Jacobs said in his claim, “coupled with numerous other deficiencies in the 166 Registration that is the basis for Nirvana’s infringement claim is the basis for the counterclaimed.”

Jacobs later said that the shirt was “inspired by vintage Nirvana concert T-shirts from the 1990s” and was unique since the smiley face was being “reinterpreted.”

Fisher recently entered the picture after he learned the band was “misattributing the illustration to Kurt Cobain” and had registered the copyright for it. His lawyer stated that he originally created the logo as a favor to the band’s management and that he owns a copyright interest under an “implied license.”

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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