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Courtney Love Loses Rights to Kurt’s Image

Frances Bean Cobain wrests control of her late father’s publicity rights from her addiction-troubled mother.

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Frances and Courtney: a parting of ways
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By Carmela Kelly

05/02/12

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Courtney Love’s control over the estate of Kurt Cobain continues to slip. In 2009, Cobain's drug- and alcohol-troubled widow lost custody of their only daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. Now, according to sealed documents exclusively obtained by The Fix, 19-year-old Frances has taken over control of the publicity rights for the Nirvana icon’s name, likeness and appearance.

“Publicity rights are potentially worth a fortune,” says Jonathan Faber, an attorney and managing partner of Luminary Group, who once represented Kurt’s estate in policing copyright infringement and investigating licensing opportunities. “They amount to the intellectual property rights.”

The documents show that Love agreed to step down as Acting Manager of End of Music LLC—the business entity responsible for generating cash from Cobain’s publicity rights—once she’d received a $2.75 million loan from Frances’ trust fund in 2010. The massive loan was transferred from Frances’ fund to EOM in Los Angeles, and then into an account held by Courtney’s then-lawyers, Pryor Cashman, in New York. Until Courtney pays it back, she won’t receive a dime from Kurt’s name, likeness or appearance from the deals formed by Frances and her advisers since December 2010.

Frances also has the final say-so in business agreements negotiated by the attorney and now acting manager of EOM David Byrnes, of Ziffren Brittenham in LA. Love remains a company member, but without the power to make decisions on anything bearing the likeness of Cobain, who committed suicide on April 5, 1994.

Love lost legal control of her daughter (and her daughter’s fortune) in a custody battle in 2009; Frances cited drug addiction and violence to justify a restraining order against her mother, and The Fix’s e-book, Courtney Comes Clean, by founder Maer Roshan, quotes Frances saying Love “has taken drugs for as long as I can remember. She basically exists now on...Xanax, Adderall, Sonata and Abilify, sugar and cigarettes."

After the custody battle, reps for Frances’ trust fund in Seattle ousted Courtney from the trust, where she served as an adviser. The case ended publicly in December 2010, with both Courtney and the fund manager, Laird Norton, stepping down, but it continued quietly in JAMS Arbitration in LA.

Included in the arbitration is a large collection of Cobain’s belongings, currently warehoused in Art Pack in LA and due to be divvied between mother and daughter. The items include Kurt’s paintings that The Fix exclusively revealed last month, as well as musical equipment and personal items, such as his pajamas. Court documents show that Frances owns at a least 40% share of these items, while Courtney has around 60%.

So Courtney Love’s realm is shrinking. The singer now has no say in her daughter’s affairs and little influence over the use of Kurt’s publicity rights and music. The BMI catalog shows Larry Mestel, of Primary Wave Music, owns 100% of the administrative rights. According to Faber, this means only Mestel and Primary Wave have the power to decide how Kurt’s music is used—as evidenced by the recent use of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the new Muppets movie. So Courtney was wrong to claim that Disney didn’t have the right to use the song; it wasn’t her decision. Mestel makes those calls.   

Meanwhile, an inside source tells The Fix that Mestel also owns 50% of Kurt’s publishing rights. Mestel refuses to confirm or deny this when asked. Like the publicity rights, these publishing rights are likely to be worth many millions. 

“One licensed use of a top-tier song in a major ad campaign, for instance, can be worth as much as $5 million,” says Faber, who has handled music licensing deals for Chuck Berry and served as an expert consultant for Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue. “I know of a number of bands and artists who will not consider any licensing of their music for anything less than a million dollars.”

Courtney’s legal troubles keep on growing. A JAMS spokesperson confirms that that arbitration process continues. And her lawyers, Pryor Cashman, are bailing on her because she allegedly stiffed them of fees and is (surprise) difficult to work with. She still has impending lawsuits against her. In New York she’s wanted for allegedly not paying a security group for work they did to protect her in LA, and a case regarding unreturned jewelry on loan from a New York retailer remains active. She also faces a previous attorney’s wrath for allegedly libeling her on Twitter.

Courtney Love’s next move is as hard to predict as it’s always been. But she’s now looking more isolated than ever before.

Carmela Kelly is a regular contributor to The Fix, and contributed additional reporting to The Fix's e-book, Courtney Comes Clean.

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