Vice versus ViceVersa
If you haven't paid close attention to the slew of tweets and articles online attacking the news outlet Vice Media over the last month, you might think it's just another attack on a major brand by social media users — one among many in the relatively short history of the internet. But this time the dispute isn't over whether the brand in question is using unsustainable business practices, like when Greenpeace turned internet users against Nestle in 2012, or when a viral video spread the message that Hewlett-Packard computers were racist in 2009. No, this time the social media campaign was organized by an up-and-coming independent band, and the fight was over their name.
For the past two and a half years, ViceVersa, the Whittier-based trifecta of drummer Ariel Fredrickson, bassist Sarah Corza, and lead guitarist Christopher Morales (who goes by the stage name Zeke Zeledon), have been working hard to make their name known in the highly competitive music industry. With a style they describe as "punk-funk," and a following that was growing locally and internationally, things seemed to be going well for the trio. After a recent tour to play abroad, they released two EPs, "Da EP" and "Da EP Vol. 2."
Then, in December of 2015, Vice Media sent Morales a cease-and-desist letter over the use of the ViceVersa name, which the band had registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2014. According to the letter, Vice Media claimed that the name "ViceVersa" was "confusingly similar to the VICE® Mark" and infringing on their brand. They further stated that the band could be liable for monetary damages if they persisted in using the name after April 18.
After this formal challenge to their namesake, the trio of musicians turned to social media. They posted a YouTube video online to announce the dispute to their small but loyal following, bringing attention to what was apparently a brewing legal battle. Soon enough, articles appeared on The Huffington Post and Pitchfork Media, and then came the stream of tweets against Vice Media:
— a n d r e a (@MidnightDreary_) April 12, 2016
— Robert ToTeras (@roberttoteras) April 11, 2016
Recently, the band sat down to discuss the conflict with The Corsair.
"You can see they have active cases on other similar 'vice' things. They're going after a sports store and something called 'Baby Vice.' They're claiming to own that trademark, but what we did differently is we went to social media," said Morales. "Something in the letter said that their trademark 'Vice' was the initial and primary component of our name and we're like wait a minute... our name means totally something else."
Morales went on to say that if their band name was just "Vice" or "The Vice Band," the three would understand the reasoning for the cease-and-desist letter. He pointed out that, by definition, the word "Vice" means "bad or immoral behavior or habits" and ViceVersa is "the other way around."
The band was clearly aware of Vice's reasoning, but they say that they never saw their name as a threat to them. They spoke about their sensitivity to issues of infringement in their own musical practices, saying that if something they make sounds like a rhythm, beat or lyric they've already heard before, they throw it out. But they are insistent on not throwing away their name because it came after a long hunt that the band compared to naming their first child.
After sifting through many variations of similar names and asking their fans and friends, they stuck with ViceVersa, and trademarked it to prevent problems with other bands that may share the same name or likeness.
"Nothing feels as good as ViceVersa does," said Corza.
For the trio, the name represents the band, and the band is a full-time job. All three are currently working as full-time musicians, without other work because they're dedicated to making it big.
"It's awesome but you're competing with everybody," said Morales. Corza agreed, saying, "ViceVersa is all we do. It's all or nothing."
This dedication to their craft and their name was a large reason why the whole crew was shocked when Vice sent the cease-and-desist letter in the first place.
"We were like what? Vice Media... the one with all the articles? How did they even find out about us?" said Morales. The trio was surprised, to say the least. Morales said the letter was "a very intense legal document with screenshots and all our info. They had no chill."
Still, the band wasn't angry about the situation. Fredrickson said, "We weren't mad. We just want to stay ViceVersa."
The band attempted to compromise with the media company. After receiving the cease-and-desist, they wrote back and offered to narrow the scope of their trademark to simply the music performance category.
"They seemed cool [with it], so we moved forward and played at the House of Blues," said Morales.
Things seemed to die down after that. Following the release of "Da EP Vol. 2," the record was voted number one LA Record Magazine's “Best of 2015 Reader & Contributor Poll," and they were starting to figure out what to do next in the studio.
However, the deadline from Vice to stop using the name finally came on Monday, April 18. After meeting in court, ViceVersa received a 30-day extension from Vice so negotiations could continue the two parties.
According to Vice spokesman David Marek, "Both sides' lawyers are working together to find a mutually beneficial resolution that would include ViceVersa keeping its name and Vice protecting its trademark."
It's possible that the band's social media awareness strategy may have borne fruit, although officially, Vice Media retains its opposition to the band's use of the word "Vice" in their branding.
In the end, Morales' point was clear when he said, "From one content creator to another, let’s do something together now that we have this engagement and if not, I guess we’ll see you guys in court."