Filmmaker Sues B.B. King for Use of His Name

     SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – A man who claims he helped B.B. King get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sued the King of Blues in Federal Court, for the right to use King’s name “without limitations or restrictions” in a movie called “B.B. King and I.”



     King Size Film Productions sued Riley B. King and KingsID Ventures, seeking declaratory judgment that his film title does not violate or dilute King’s trademarks or infringe on his publicity rights, and does not constitute unfair competition.
     “Plaintiff KFSP brings this action in response to defendants’ heavy-handed and misguided attempts to prevent KSFP from proceeding with the production, distribution, public display, and marketing of a film currently entitled ‘B.B. King and I,'” the 28-page complaint begins. “Specifically, defendants alleged KSFP’s proposed use of the term ‘B.B. King’ and BB’s name and likeness violate defendants’ rights and constitute, inter alia, trademark and right of publicity infringement, cybersquatting, and unfair competition. They have demanded plaintiff immediately cease and desist with its efforts on the film. To protect plaintiff’s basic first amendment right to tell the true story of Michael Zanetis’ (the ‘I’ in ‘B.B. King and I’) life and his inspirational relationship with B.B. King, this declaratory relief action is, unfortunately, needed.”
     King Size, based is San Juan Capistrano, is the only plaintiff, though the complaint refers to Zanetis throughout. Attached as an exhibit is a July 28, 2011 cease-and desist letter from King’s attorney in Las Vegas, where the musician lives.
     “Given the three decades of friendship shared between B.B. and Zanetis and the previous encouragement, if not outright approval, B.B. had given to the film, the letter came as a complete surprise,” Zanetis says his complaint.
     According to the complaint: “The story of Michael Zanetis’ life is inextricably interwoven with the story of his relationship with B.B. King.”
     Zanetis acknowledges in the complaint that when he moved with “the love of his life” in 1977 “from the farmlands of Indiana to the beaches of California in pursuit of a dream – a career in the music business … B.B. King had already firmly established himself as a global music icon. …
     “Through a chance meeting arranged (unbeknownst to Zanetis) by B.B.’s son, Willie, in 1980, Zanetis and King would form an unlikely but enduring relationship – one that spanned over three decades and numerous high and low points in the lives of both individuals.
     “Over the years, B.B. was involved in some of the most critical events – both triumphant and tragic – in Zanetis’ life. B.B. inspired Michael’s career in the music industry, helped Michael cope with the untimely passing of his father, encouraged him in his business plans and even performed at the opening of Michael’s Supper Club, the legendary venue through which Zanetis made his indelible mark on Southern California’s sonic landscape.
     “Meanwhile, Michael did his own small part to thank B.B. for all his friendship and kindness. In the days after the passing of B.B.’s own father, Michael made a remarkable promise to B.B.: that he would stop at nothing until B.B. was awarded a star on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. Although such recognition would represent an unusual, if not rare, honor for a blues musician, Michael would not relent and, ultimately, he delivered on his word.
     “After battling for seven long years, Michael succeeded in his goal and made his touching gesture to B.B. The impact of Michael’s work was clear to all. At the 1990 Walk of Fame ceremony where B.B. received his star, he described the honor as one that ‘means more to me than all my Grammys because I can share it with my fans.’ As he explained, ‘I never dreamed that it would ever happen. Now, just to think about that long after there’s no more B.B. King alive … long after, people will be able to walk by [and] say, ‘yeah, I remember the guy.’ In commemoration of this incredible achievement, B.B. and Michael shared the stage together in a rousing and celebratory performance at a popular venue in Southern California, the Coach House.
     “B.B.’s star is a testament to both this extraordinary career and his remarkable friendship with Zanetis. As B.B. would write to Zanetis in a letter dated June 26, 2008, ‘… I consider Michael and Denice [Michael’s wife] to be two of my closest friends. They’ve always been there for me.'” (Ellipses in complaint.)
     Zanetis says he wrote a screenplay about his life in 2006.
     “As the title of the film denotes, ‘B.B. King and I’ tells the story of the life of Michael Zanetis and his inspirational relationship with B.B. King. The title is directly and artistically relevant to the very subject matter of the film. As such, the title clearly does not mislead as to the source or content of the film. Further, neither Zanetis nor the plaintiff has ever represented to the public that B.B. was affiliated, connected, or associated with the film in anyway. Neither Zanetis nor the plaintiff has ever suggested to the public that B.B. has participated in the origin of the film or provided sponsorship or endorsement of it,” the complaint states.
     After pointing out that “a live and pending controversy has arisen” about the film, Zanetis adds: “Beaming with excitement over the film, Zanetis shared the script with B.B. B.B. encouraged Zanetis’ efforts and even went so far as to autograph the cover page of the script, wishing Zanetis luck on his project.”
     After forming King Size films to produce the film, getting the website www.bbkingandi.com, and announcing that Wendall Pierce would play B.B. in the movie, Patrick Fugit would play Zanetis, and Frank Capra would co-produce, Zanetis says, King’s attorney sent him the cease and desist letter.
     “Given the three decades of friendship shared between B.B. and Zanetis and the previous encouragement, if not outright approval, B.B. had given to the film, the letter came as a complete surprise to Zanetis and KSFP,” the complaint states.
     “Defendants’ demands to cease and desist KSFP’s film have caused and continue to cause significant damage to KSFP’s film by, inter alia, substantially delaying production, clouding the film’s title, and obstructing KSFP’s efforts to obtain further investment in the project.
     “Defendants’ position is a remarkable one – one that would radically alter the law and strike a severe blow to expressive and artistic freedom. It would also deem as infringing many celebrated works across multiple creative mediums, including Academy Award nominated move ‘My Week with Marilyn,’ Richard Linklater’s critically acclaimed film ‘Me and Orson Welles,’ Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera’s international pop hit ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and Kim Carnes’ Grammy Award winning classic ‘Bettie Davis Eyes.’
     “After several months of good face attempts to amicably resolve this dispute without litigation, KSFP was regrettably left with no choice but to file the instant actions.”
     Zanetis seeks declaratory judgment of noninfringment, of his right to maintain his website and make the movie “BB King and I” “without limitations or restrictions by defendants,” and treble damages and costs.
     He is represented by John Tehranian with One LLP of Newport Beach.

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