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Nirvana Sued for Copyright Infringement Over Use of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ Illustration

Nirvana has been hit with a copyright infringement lawsuit for allegedly using a C.W. Scott-Giles illustration from a 1949 English translation of Dante’s Inferno on merchandise sold around the world.

The suit, obtained by IndieLand, was filed by Jocelyn Susan Bundy, the granddaughter of Scott-Giles, who is described in the suit as the “sole surviving relative and sole successor-in-title to the copyright in the works created by her late grandfather.” Along with Nirvana LLC, the suit names as defendants Live Nation Merchandise, Merch Traffic and Silva Artist Management.

A representative for Nirvana and Silva Artists did not immediately return IndieLand’s request for comment. Reps for Live Nation and Merch Traffic also did not immediately return a request for comment.

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.

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The suit states that Nirvana-branded merchandise has been using this illustration as far back as 1989. Additionally, it accused Nirvana and other parties acting on its behalf of regularly making “false claims of ownership” over the illustration; the suit includes three photos where copyright notices credited to Nirvana are placed below the illustration and are dated 1992, 1996, and 2003.

The suit also claims that Nirvana has alternately implied that Kurt Cobain created the illustration, or that it’s in the public domain in the United States, and thus usable without obtaining proper authorization or paying a licensing fee. Bundy calls these allegations “false,” arguing that Scott-Giles’ illustration is still protected under U.K. copyright law and has not fallen into the public domain there, meaning it should not be considered in the public domain in the United States either.

The suit goes on to claim that “any alleged good faith belief regarding any alleged public domain status of the Illustration [by Nirvana] … is refuted by Nirvana’s false claims of copyright ownership throughout the years and the world.” It states, as well, that Nirvana and the other defendants had no reason to believe the illustration would be in the public domain in the other countries around the globe where they’ve been selling the allegedly infringing merchandise.

Nirvana and the defendants are also accused of ignoring a cease and desist request and indicating that they will keep selling these products “for at least another year without consent or compensation.” It’s later claimed that the band has been distributing so-called “Nirvana Style Guides” to third-party vendors and manufacturers of Nirvana merch that “contain digital copies of the Illustration bearing similarly false copyright notices,” too.

The suit states that while the defendants are “admittedly aware that C.W. Scott-Giles is the author of the Illustration and that Nirvana does not own any copyright in it, they continue to affix copyright notices on the Infringing Products identifying Nirvana as the owner.” This claim is accompanied by a photo of a Nirvana shirt boasting the illustration with a copyright notice dated 2020.

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Bundy is demanding that production and distribution of any infringing merchandise be stopped and that the defendants provide an accounting of “profits attributable to their infringing conduct.” The suit is seeking damages including any losses sustained by the alleged infringement, in an amount to be proven at trial, as well as all profits made “as a result of their infringing conduct,” also in an amount to be proven at trial.

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