It’s the kind of lawsuit that could only be cooked up in the bubbling cauldrons of Hogwarts: a legal spat that somehow manages to involve a Canadian folk group, members of Radiohead and Pulp, and the Warner Bros. multimedia conglomerate.
It all started last week, when the Wyrd Sisters, a folk ensemble from Winnipeg, Manitoba, filed a $40 millon suit in the U.S. and Canada against Warner Bros. Entertainment Group, claiming the release of the Warner-distributed film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which reportedly features a performance by a fictional band named the Wyrd Sisters, would harm their career.
Even though the band’s name is the Weird Sisters (not “Wyrd”) in the book upon which the film is based, and even though Warner has removed the band’s name from the film, the Wyrd Sisters stand by their claim.
“The issue is who used [the name] first. My clients have trademarked the name the Wyrd Sisters, and Warner recognized that, so they’re taking the name out of the movie. We’re just saying that’s not enough,” the band’s lawyer, Kimberly Townley-Smith, said. “The concern is that people in the general public will be exposed to the Harry Potter phenomenon, and when they see my clients’ advertising and merchandise, they will think we’re Harry Potter. That’s happened in the past, and it can cause difficulty for the band, even though we were first, because people come to our concerts and they’re mad because they’re not seeing witches — they’re seeing a band that is much different.”
Also named in the suit are Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway, who play the Sisters in the film (Franz Ferdinand were originally tapped for the role but opted out: see “Franz Ferdinand To Play Ugly Sisters In Next ’Harry Potter’ Flick?” ). Townley-Smith said that naming the musicians in the suit was simply done for legal reasons, mainly to prevent members of either band from ever performing as the Wyrd Sisters. But this didn’t stop angry fans from bombarding the Canadian Sisters’ messageboards, accusing the band of simply trying to cash in on Pulp’s or Radiohead’s fame.
“The primary thrust in the litigation is Warner Bros. Entertainment Group. We’re not interested in Radiohead’s money; we just don’t want them to go around performing as the Wyrd Sisters,” Townley-Smith said. “They’re also mentioned because they are the performers in the film, which makes them personally liable. They’re not the focus, but we understand that Radiohead fans are very upset, and that was unintentional.”
In J.K. Rowling’s book of “Goblet of Fire,” a band named the Weird Sisters plays at a party attended by Potter and his friends. Townley-Smith is quick to point out that her clients did not initiate the legal wrangling, but rather that Warner had initially approached them with an offer of $5,000 to use the band’s name in the film. After the Wyrd Sisters declined, Warner made a second offer — which some reports put in the range of $50,000, a figure Townley-Smith would not confirm or deny — which the band also turned down.
At press time, lawyers for Warner Bros. could not be reached for comment about the lawsuit or the “Goblet of Fire” film, though Townley-Smith said she is in talks with them and hopes a resolution can be reached. If not, she plans on filing a motion in Canadian court to block the film’s distribution.
Townley-Smith’s statement of claim alleges the film depicts a Wyrd (with the spelling changed from the book to include a “y”) Sisters band in an “involved, spectacular and memorable” performance which, because of the mass appeal of the film, will usurp the Canadian band’s identity.
The Canadian Sisters are likely to have taken their spelling from Terry Pratchett’s 1988 book, “Wyrd Sisters,” which spoofs, among other things, Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters, who predict the destinies of the main characters in “MacBeth.”
“This sounds rather silly but it’s really not: The issue is one of trademark,” Townley-Smith said. “And it doesn’t matter if the names are spelled correctly or not; it sounds exactly the same. The issue is confusion. People often misspell one for the other. And if you look up ’Harry Potter Wyrd Sisters’ on the Internet, you get references to the Cocker/Selway/ Greenwood band. And bands travel by word of mouth, and by a trademark perspective, it makes confusion. It’s the sum of all the factors. The spelling isn’t significant.”
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