In the spring of 2017, Buddy “Blaze” Webster (“Blaze”), a well-known guitar designer, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Dean Guitars (“Dean”); the estate of legendary guitarist Darrell Abbott (“Abbott”), also known as Dimebag Darrell; and Guitar Center (the latter two parties were brought into the lawsuit at a later date when Blaze amended his complaint). The lawsuit alleged Dean had been impermissibly reproducing the likeness of Blaze’s guitar, in particular, its “lightning storm graphic,” which was allegedly copyrighted by Blaze. Earlier this week, Blaze lost his legal battle when a Florida federal judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
At some point during the 1980’s, Blaze modified a Dean guitar with new hardware, repainted it with the “lightning storm graphic,” and gave it to Abbott. It soon was nicknamed “Dean From Hell.” This guitar with its distinguishing mark, which become synonymous with Abbott’s rise to fame as a member of the metal band Pantera, has became a marketable instrument for Dean over the years. Since Abbott’s tragic death in 2004, Dean has issued a number of variations, all which include the “lightning storm graphic.” Blaze never took part in working with Dean on its variations of the “Dean From Hell” (and was unsuccessful in negotiating a licensing agreement with Abbott’s estate). According to Blaze, he received no compensation while Dean continued to profit from his designs to the “Dean From Hell” series of instruments.
The defendants won on summary judgment because of Blaze's failure to comply with the statute of limitations. For a copyright infringement action, the statute of limitations does not begin until after the last infringing act has taken place. As such, one would assume Blaze had plenty of time to comply with the statute of limitations because Dean allegedly has continued to sell the guitars in question. However, the court found that the real issue of this case was not infringement, rather copyright ownership. For a copyright ownership dispute, the accusing party has three years to bring claims after becoming aware of the controversy over ownership. Here, the court found Blaze had been aware that Dean was selling guitars that allegedly infringed on his design as early as 2004, yet waited thirteen years to file his lawsuit. The bottom line is that Blaze waited too long to bring his claims.
The important thing to take away from this case is that if you own a copyright and suspect another party has engaged in infringing conduct, consult with an attorney to determine what your rights are, what your options are, and if the statute of limitations clock is running.