When country trio Lady Antebellum announced a name change in mid-June amid national conversations about racism, it was meant to be a gesture of goodwill. The band had been criticized for romanticizing the pre-war, slavery-ridden American South — so it chopped off the offending word and refashioned itself “Lady A.”
But Lady A was already someone else’s name: A 61-year-old black singer in Seattle, Anita White, had recorded and performed music with it for decades. In the days after White spoke with Rolling Stone about her shock, the band contacted the singer and posted on Instagram that the two parties were working toward an agreement. Last Wednesday, however, the band filed a declaratory judgment lawsuit against the singer in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, asking a court to affirm its right to use the name Lady A. The trio — Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood — said in an accompanying statement that White had asked for a $10 million payment, so “we are sad to share that our sincere hope to join together with Anita White in unity and common purpose has ended.”
White, speaking to Rolling Stone on Friday, says she has been buried in Google searches for “Lady A,” whereas prior to last month, she was the only result for the name. “If you’re going to appropriate my name, I thought it was only fair I could rebrand myself with $5 million,” she says. “I could help my community, I could help my church, I can help other artists. And that other $5 million was supposed to go to Black Lives Matter to help other artists with this very struggle.” Critics of the band’s handling of the situation have also pointed out the irony of the trio changing its name to support racial justice, while subsequently usurping a black woman.
In its complaint, the band says it holds federal trademarks while the singer does not — but White also started using the name in her music career 20 years ago, while the band officially adopted it in 2020.
The declaratory judgment suit essentially asks a court to affirm that both parties can use the name. “This is a proactive way to clear up a dispute,” intellectual-property attorney Wesley Lewis tells Rolling Stone. “I think the band was cognizant of the optics, because they said they are not seeking damages from Anita White. They’re not requesting that the court prevent her from using the name Lady A. This is a mechanism for parties to request that the court establish they have a legal entitlement to use this particular mark.”
While it’s technically correct that the band is “suing” Lady A, Lewis notes, that word alone “doesn’t provide the full picture of what’s going on here.”
Lewis and other attorneys say that time and scope will both be crucial points for the court to examine. The parties will first need to show how long they have been using the trademarks in commerce; the second factor in the court’s decision will be how broadly they have used the mark in commerce. (Trademarks deal with logos, merchandise, novelty items, and other items that can be sold or marketed; copyrights, which rear their head in infringement suits over songs and albums, are a different matter.)
Trademark lawyer Alexandra Roberts agrees: “The band’s registrations create a strong presumption that the band got there first and its trademark rights trump Ms. White’s, but that’s the beginning of a priority analysis, not the end,” she says.
Geography also matters. If two people file and use the same local trademark in two separate states, that’s not a conflict, but if one of them is granted a federal trademark, it essentially overrules the locally-filed person and “cuts off anyone else being able to use the same trademark,” Rosenblum says. Since the complaint is being brought in Tennessee and White resides in Washington, geography also appears to be a strategic point in the band’s suit. While told Rolling Stone last month that she had a trademark for Lady A but did not specify what type of mark it was.
So what’s the most likely outcome of this case?
“Ideally, the parties could resolve this in a way that allows both to use the mark without creating confusion,” Lewis says. If the court agrees with the band and grants it a right to the name, the two groups “will have to agree to a way to ensure consumers — music fans — know who’s who.” If the court rejects the band’s claim, further legal action will be needed to sort out exactly who can use the name and where.
Roberts points out that the case could also be thrown out on a technicality without ever being heard — because the band must first establish that it has subject-matter jurisdiction to bring this matter before a court, and it’s not clear what exactly White’s legal team said in their original letter to the band. “When a party sues for declaratory judgment, as the band did in this case, it’s often in response to an explicit threat of suit. But Ms. White never threatened to sue,” she says. “There’s a real dispute here on whether the band was premature in suing.” The case might also be thrown out if the court disagrees that Tennessee is the proper place to litigate this dispute, she says.
Entertainment law attorney Lawrence Iser, who’s represented artists like Jackson Browne, says he believes the band Lady A’s claim is “incredibly strong” because it has been using the mark continuously — thereby owning common-law trademark rights — since 2006, even though it used Lady Antebellum in all fan-facing materials. The band also obtained federal registration for a trademark of Lady A in 2011.
“The band sought a co-existence agreement with Ms. White, which is the appropriate, traditional and efficient way to handle disputes such as this,” Iser says. “White’s $10 million demand is shocking and unconscionable and left the band with little choice but to commence the lawsuit — a lawsuit the band should easily win.”
White maintains that the financial sum isn’t her focus. “They do this to make me look bad, like I’m just out for the money,” she says. “I didn’t need their money before. I have a job that I’m retiring from, and I have music that I do. My life was happy before I met them. I do community work. You need to understand if you’re going to be an ally, you need to speak up bravely about what is going on.”