Songwriters sue, saying: You can't use 'Redneck Yacht Club'

During tough economic times, Nashville songwriters push harder to protect witty lyrics.

John Russell / AP/ File
Craig Morgan performs on stage at the Grand Ole Opry during Country Reaches Out, a benefit for the American Red Cross, in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 27, 2005.

Who can forget the Redneck Yacht Club?

The 2005 hit by country crooner Craig Morgan, written by Nashville lyricists Thom Shepherd and Steve Williams, conjured up a summer day of Dixie bliss, with Bayliners and party barges "strung together like a floating trailer park."

The image was priceless, and the single did pretty well, too, peaking at No. 2 on the country charts.

But in an industry desperately looking for fresh revenues, protecting phrases that evoke an idea or milieu is becoming ever more crucial as total country CD sales slid by 23 million units in the past year alone.

Messrs. Shepherd and Williams filed suit in US District Court in Nashville last week against a Fort Myers, Fla., off-road recreational park that purloined the name. Last month, the songwriters also sued a Colorado T-shirt maker for selling "Redneck Yacht Club" shirts that, they claim, impinge on merchandise sold on the official website.

"This is a [case] of interest," says intellectual-property attorney Kevin Parks, who specializes in the music industry at Leydig, Voit & Mayer in Chicago.

"Not every song title rises to the level of something that is usable in an expanded way, but these guys have recognized that they're onto a little something here, and they want to stake a claim," he says.

Following the lead of perennial beachmeister Jimmy Buffett, who trademarked the phrases "Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," the Nashville songwriters applied for a US trademark in 2005.

"That term didn't exist until we came up with it," Shepherd told the Tennessean newspaper this week.

Trademarking witty phrases is a good start for an industry hurt by file sharing and the general economy. "Should we be doing it? Heck, yes," Nashville attorney Steven Gladstone told the Tennessean. "We should be thinking of all the things we can do to create revenues and sustain the industry."

Yet Shepherd and Williams may face "an uphill battle," says Mr. Parks, the property-rights attorney.

A quick check on the US Patent and Trademark Office's website shows that the pair applied for a trademark in 2005, but the deadline for final approval was extended in order to demonstrate "actual use" of the title, which, according to government records, they have not yet done. "Actual use" means they have created an enterprise beyond the phrase itself.

"[The pending trademark approval] will be an issue for them in a lawsuit," says Parks. And perhaps a lesson to other songwriters hoping to turn a lyrical concoction into a cash enterprise.

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