Image: The Rolling Stones

In 1970, ahead of its 23 show European tour, someone from The Rolling Stones’ camp reached out to the Royal College of Art in London. The Mick Jagger-fronted band – just 8 years old at the time – was in need of a poster for the tour, which was slated to start that summer in Malmo, Sweden. The Royal College of Art’s recommendation? A Master of Arts student in his final year named John Pasche, who – following a meeting with Jagger – would come on board to design the classic 1930s and 40s travel-inspired poster to announce the impending string of shows. Pasche’s involvement would ultimately prove to be far from a one-off gig, as months later, Jagger called back. “The Stones were going to launch their own record label and they needed a logo,” and could Pasche – still a student at the time – “design it?” 

In a subsequent face-to-face, “Jagger showed Pasche an illustration of the Hindu deity Kali, which [he] had seen in a shop near his home and asked if he could borrow,” the New York Times recalls. According to Pasche, Jagger “was ‘more interested in the Indian nature of it,’ [with] Indian culture in Britain being quite trendy at the time, but the designer was struck” by something else. The goddess’s widely opened mouth and protruding tongue. He told the Times, “I just immediately picked up on the tongue and mouth.” In exchange for £50 and a £200 bonus, Pasche drew up various Pop Art-inspired takes of the tongue and lips logo, which the band would come to adopt as a central element of their branding. 

What “began as a tiny emblem, something to adorn a 45 r.p.m. single or the band’s letterhead,” according to the Times, “quickly became ubiquitous,” appearing on everything from stage sets and posters to t-shirts and lighters across the globe, and ultimately, turned out to be “the most famous logo in rock ’n’ roll.”  

The Pasche-created logo – which has long been registered in European Union by Musidor B.V., the Dutch company that owns and manages most of the band’s intellectual property assets – got the court treatment recently, with the Judicial Court of Paris determining that an unnamed third party in the business of creating fabric patches infringed the band’s trademark rights (as well as its copyright) when it co-opted the tongue and lips logo, and added a Breton flag motif, thanks to the likelihood that that unauthorized logo used by the defendant would give rise to confusion among consumers as to the source of the patches and/or the connection with The Rolling Stones when no such affiliation exists  In response to Mudisor’s copyright and trademark infringement claims, the defendant unsuccessfully attempted to make a parody argument, asserting that its take on the logo amounts to “satirical speech.” 

In what might otherwise be a straightforward infringement matter, French trademark attorney Victoire Leandri says that the case is striking given the court’s finding that The Rolling Stones’ mark is of “well-known character,” and thus, subject to heightened protections. In its February 25 decision, Leandri notes that the court referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union’s decision in the 1999 General Motors Corp. vs. Yplon SA case, which held that in order to be recognized as a well-known trademark, a mark “must be known by a significant part of the public concerned by the goods or services covered by it.” 

(Remaining “the leading authority” on what trademark holders need to prove in order to establish reputation in a mark, the decision in General Motors decision established that a decision-maker must take into account “the market share held by the trademark, the intensity, geographical extent and duration of its use, and the size of the investment made … in promoting’ the mark,” according to trademark scholars Robert Burrell and Michael Handler, who note that “significantly, in considering the level of reputation required, the decision-maker must consider whether the mark is known by ‘the public concerned by the products or services’ covered by the registration.”)

With this standard in mind, the Judicial Court pointed to an array of newspaper articles that “described the [Stones’ tone and lips] logo as iconic, even ‘the most iconic of all time,’ [and] that said that the logo is considered ‘the living tongue of The Rolling Stones,’ which has accompanied the band for 40 years.” In light of the “very close link between the [tongue and lips] logo” and The Rolling Stones, and given the significant level of media attention that the world-famous band enjoys, the court held that the logo is, in fact, “known by a significant part of the public, [is] used [widely], and therefore, enjoys a high reputation in the European Union.” Leandri states that the court’s decision also places significant emphasis on “the close and systematic link between The Rolling Stones’ trademarks” and the level of fame of the group, itself,” which the court found “directly contributes to the reputation of those trademarks.” 

As a result, the court held that the tongue and lips graphic “clearly refers, for the average consumer, to … a characteristic of The Rolling Stones’ universe,” and can benefit from the classification of a well-known mark.

In terms of the current status of the logo, the Times reported last year that it has “generated an enormous amount of money for the Stones,” citing the British public relations veteran Alan Edwards, who handled the band’s publicity in the 1980s, who says that the band “must have grossed a good billion [pounds] in concerts, record and DVD sales, merchandising and exhibitions,” while also using the logo “all over advertising” during that period of time, and the the decades since. Echoing this sentiment, Briffa Legal attorney Samuel O’Toole told the Times that famous tongue and lips trademark is likely worth “hundreds of millions of pounds.”

As for Mr. Pasche, he ultimately got more than the initial £250 paycheck for creating the logo, which was subsequently tweaked a bit by then-Andy Warhol collaborator Craig Braun before it first appeared on The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” album in April 1971. As the Independent reported that in 1976, “an official contract was drawn up between [Mr. Pasche] and Musidor BV,” at which point “the designer began receiving royalties for his work.” According to the British publication, the deal gave Pasche 10 percent of net income on sales of Rolling Stones merchandising displaying the logo, from which he “estimates he made ‘a few thousand pounds’ in total in royalties until 1982, when he sold his copyright to the band for £26,000.” 

Reflecting on the logo years later, Andrew Blauvelt, curator at large for the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, told the Times that Pasche’s “original and singular design,” has certainly “come a long way, despite having been done in a low-key fashion and at low cost.”