In a complaint obtained by Rolling Stone, the rapper alleges that Guerilla Union, Inc., which produces the annual event (last held in 2013), used the phrase “Rock the Bells” – the title of LL’s 1985 hit – without his permission. He also claims that by using that name, music fans could be confused that he endorsed the festival or served as one of its producers and that by using Rock the Bells in a URL, the festival committed “cyberpiracy.” Using the name, he alleges, is an act of fraud and counts as “unfair competition,” for the rapper, who named his branded classic hip-hop channel on Sirius XM “Rock the Bells.”
The rapper is asking the court to stop the festival from using the phrase in any manner, including printing merchandise with the phrase on it, and alluding to any connection with LL Cool J (real name James Todd Smith). He also wants a judge to recognize his “Rock the Bells” trademark as valid and order the festival to deliver any unused merch with the name on it to the rapper so he can destroy it and transfer the rights to its URL and social media accounts to him.
Smith is asking that Guerilla Union deliver any and all profits from allegedly infringing on the trademark and three times the amount of compensatory damages and punitive damages, among other claims.
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Reps for LL Cool J and Guerilla Union did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.
Smith released the funky “Rock the Bells” with its heavy metal guitar stabs courtesy of Rick Rubin on his 1985 album Radio; he was 17 at the time. When it was released as a single, it made it to Number 17 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. The more famous version of the song features no bells at all, though there is plenty on the “original version” that came out on the song’s 12-inch release.
The rapper filed several trademark claims to the phrase between 2014 and this year; he launched his Rock the Bells radio channel this past March. Guerilla Union has previously trademarked the phrase in the mid-2000s but the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has designated those marks as “dead.” (LL’s are all listed as “live.”) Smith is likely filing the lawsuit now to establish his precedence on the mark since the PTO no longer recognizes those belonging to Guerilla Union and the other company.
Guerilla Union launched the first Rock the Bells festival in 2004 with two California shows featuring Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest as headliners. It was held again in the state the next two years before becoming a nationally touring festival in 2006. It was held every year since then until 2013. Its two main properties now are the Paid Dues Festival and Cypress Hill’s Smoke Out Festival, last held in 2012.