Nirvana and Marc Jacobs Settle Copyright Lawsuit Over Smiley Face

Six years after Nirvana filed a lawsuit against Marc Jacobs for the use of a smiley face logo, a settlement has been reached.

In California federal court Tuesday, the remaining members of the band Nirvana, artist Robert Fisher and the LVMH-owned Marc Jacobs International agreed to resolve their legal dispute and finalize an agreement within the next three weeks.

Attorneys for Nirvana, Fisher and Jacobs did not respond to media requests Thursday, nor did representatives at Jacobs’ company.

In December 2018, Nirvana sued Marc Jacobs claiming the band owned the smiley face logo through copyright. Nirvana had used a smiley face with an “X” for each eye and a tongue-out smile. During the court proceedings, Nirvana’s lawyers claimed that the band’s founder Kurt Cobain created the logo sometime around 1991. (The frontman died three years later.)


Kurt Cobain playing guitar during Nirvana’s 1993 MTV “Unplugged” performance.

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Nirvana’s legal team argued that it had used the logo on licensed apparel including T-shirts, bags and hoodies. The band took issue with a Marc Jacobs T-shirt with a smiley face that had an “M” and a “J” for the eyes instead of two “Xs.” Nirvana’s legal team claimed that the design was “virtually identical or substantially similar” to the original logo.

Marc Jacobs International, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus filed a counterclaim in December 2018.

In 2020, Fisher, who was the former art director of Nirvana’s record label Geffen Records, claimed he had designed the logo when working with the band in the 1990s. In addition to his attorney, representatives at his company did not respond to a media request Thursday.

Frances Bean Cobain, Marc Jacobs, and Courtney Love

Frances Bean Cobain, Marc Jacobs and Courtney Love.

Lexie Moreland/WWD

Many know Fisher’s work unknowingly. He created the cover for Nirvana’s 1991 breakout album “Nevermind,” which featured a Kirk Weddle-shot photo of a four-month-old baby in a swimming pool with a Photoshopped dollar bill on a submerged fishhook nearby. (In December, a child pornography lawsuit that had been filed by Spencer Elden, who had been photographed as a baby for the “Nevermind” album cover, against Nirvana was reinstated by an appeals court.)

By his own account. Fisher once explained that he had been hired as a designer out of art school and he worked his way up to art director. The artist reportedly said he was excited when he heard that Geffen was going to sign Nirvana, so he went and asked if he could work on it.

During the years-long legal battle, Jacob’s attorneys challenged that and said that the group’s founding drummer Dave Grohl had testified that he did not know who had created the X-Eye Smiley Face. Another founding member, Krist Novoselic, had offered a similar view and added, “this image had been around…it didn’t seem like a new idea.”

The suit had been filed after Marc Jacobs issued the “Bootleg Redux Grunge” collection in November 2018, which was considered to be something of a nostalgic reprise of the designer’s 1993 grunge collection. The redux collection included sweatshirts, T-shirts and socks that featured a similar smiley face design, with the initials “M” and “J” standing in for the eyes, rather than the Xs. 

Nonetheless, Marc Jacobs had acknowledged in one of its court filings at the time that the doodle was indeed “inspired by vintage Nirvana concert T-shirts from the 1990s — the era of ‘grunge’ fashion.”

Kaia and Presley Gerber

Kaia and Presley Gerber

Lexie Moreland/WWD

The designer’s version of the smiley face was showcased in the step-and-repeat at the opening of the Marc Jacobs store on Madison Avenue in December 2018, which doubled as a party for the Redux Grunge collection. Gigi Hadid, Sofia Coppola, Kaia Gerber and her brother Presley were among the attendees. Unrelated to the Nirvana lawsuit, Marc Jacobs has featured more traditional versions of smiley faces in the past through a childrenswear collaboration with SmileyWorld. And as a sign of the ideogram’s lasting appeal, Hadid was photographed in New York City earlier this week wearing a cropped T-shirt with the yellow icon — albeit the brand was unknown.

The remaining members of Nirvana, Fisher and Marc Jacobs agreed to a mediator’s proposal earlier this week and now have 21 days to iron out the details of the agreement. Terms of the settlement were not revealed in the court documents.

Interestingly, Jacobs first connected with Cobain and his wife Courtney Love years ago. In 2010, Love told WWD, “Marc sent me and Kurt [Cobain] his Perry Ellis grunge collection. Do you know what we did with it?” she asks, enunciating what came next. “We burned it. We were punkers — we didn’t like that kind of thing.” But Love, the singer of the alternative rock band Hole, also said that she was relieved to have discovered that she had saved remnants.

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Courtney Love at Marc Jacobs

WWD Staff

The musician’s widow has also sat front row at Jacobs’ fashion shows and she was featured in the designer’s fall 2016 advertising campaign along with Cara Delevingne, Missy Elliott, St. Vincent and others.

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