‘John Lemon’ lemonade has been renamed after Yoko Ono threatened legal proceedings against its manufacturer, on the grounds that its brand name abuses and misuses John Lennon’s legacy. Novagraaf’s Claire Jones examines the complaint.

The Polish manufacturer has been established for five years and distributes its products to bars and restaurants in the UK and throughout the EU. In response to the action, it has agreed to change its name to ‘ON LEMON’, but still refers to “John Lemon sets standards” and “#JohnLemonPolska” in its advertising.

Grounds for objection?

The company denies using John Lennon’s name and image to sell its products, but Ono’s legal team referred to Facebook posts by John Lemon Ireland showing a wall mural of John Lennon holding lemons with the company’s logo underneath (see picture below, right), and another with the words ‘Let It Be’, a pair of round glasses and the company name.

Could the company have claimed the defence of parody?

Parody is a fair use exemption to copyright infringement, but Ono’s claim was for trademark infringement. The company responded to that action by claiming that the brands are completely different and that it was not attempting to make any association with the singer, meaning that claiming parody would likely have been counter-productive. In addition, the term ‘parody’ relates to use of an amusing or sardonic take, often mocking or critical. All in all, therefore, it is unlikely to be a strong claim.

Proving infringement: trademarks, image rights and passing off

‘John Lemon’ was registered as an EU trademark in 2014, two years earlier than the JOHN LENNON mark, which was registered in 2016. In the UK, there is no provision for image rights as such, but there are passing off and false endorsement claims which can be successful.

The most frequently used tool by complainants in such issues would be the tort of passing off, which is aimed at protecting the ‘attractive force’ of an individual’s reputation. The tort was first successfully brought in respect of an individual in Edmund Irvine v Talksport Ltd [2002] 2 All E 414, in which Formula One driver Eddie Irvine successfully brought an action against UK radio station Talksport for false endorsement. The use of passing off was further demonstrated in Fenty v Arcadia [2013] EWHC 2310 in which pop star Rihanna was able to prevent unauthorised use of her image on clothing by TopShop.

John Lemon is not the only product to fall foul of claimed rights to prominent singers in 2017. Earlier this year Scottish brewery BrewDog was unsuccessful in proceedings brought against its ELVIS JUICE IPA on the basis of rights owned by the Elvis Presley Estate.