For the last two years, Nirvana LLC has been in litigation with fashion honcho Marc Jacobs over the usage of Nirvana’s “happy face” design, made famous on the band’s T-shirts back in the ’90s. But a new wrinkle has been thrown into the case as a California-based graphic designer has claimed that he was the one who created the now famous image at the center of the current legal battle and not Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
Nirvana’s company filed their legal action in 2018, suing the designer for copyright and trademark infringement after the design turned up as part of Jacobs’ “Bootleg Redux Grunge” line without the band’s permission. In the filing, Cobain was listed as the creator of the “Happy Face” art and the band has a copyright registration for the T-shirt design.
Jacobs stated that the inspiration for his line came from “looks that his friends were wearing in downtown Manhattan and Pacific Northwest at the time,” admitting that it was partially inspired by the Nirvana T-shirt, but had been reinterpreted using the MJ initials for the eyes.
The new entrant into the ongoing suit is Robert Fisher, a freelance graphic designer, who claims that he worked for Geffen and worked with the band to create the image that has been used over the years. According to Billboard, Fisher filed his motion on Sept. 13 to intervene in the case, claiming to be the rightful creator and owner of the design.
Fisher stated in his court papers that he was an art director at Geffen and asked to work with the band on their album design. After working on the naked baby boy image that graced the album cover of Nevermind, he then became the “go-to person for almost all of [Nirvana’s] graphic design needs.”
He states that it was mid-1991 when he received the request to design a T-shirt that was more retail friendly and “started playing around with variations of the smiley faces that he used to draw in his final year at Otis College, when acid culture was at its peak.” Fisher detailed how he came up with the image and the instruments used in doing so and adds that his design is exactly what was submitted to the copyright office even though he was never a direct employee of Nirvana LLC.
According to Fisher’s attorney, Inge De Bruyn, the graphic designer only recently learned that the band was “misattributing the illustration to Kurt Cobain” or had registered the copyright for the design.
“Robert has always been a rather private person and not one to wear his achievements on his sleeve,” De Bruyn told Billboard. “That said, there’s a clear line between people speculating about the origins and authorship of his work, and it being misattributed to someone else. Most creative people would object to that. Artists deserve proper credit for their work. Oftentimes, it’s ALL they get.
Fisher told the Los Angeles Times that he has no intention of seeking payment for the past 25 years of Nirvana’s usage, but may seek compensation moving forward. “Since I drew it, I want to be known as the guy that drew it. It’s as simple as that,” he stated. “I don’t think it’s fair that they try and take out a copyright and say Kurt did it.”
“This has very little to do with Nirvana the band,” added De Bruyn. “This is just about two corporate structures making millions off a design that neither one of them created or paid for.”
Nirvana LLC attorney Bert H. Deixler told the Los Angeles Times that Fisher’s assertions were “factually and legally baseless” and that his claims would be “vigorously challenged.”
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