UPDATED: The boy band O-Town briefly rose to fame in 2000, with a star turn on MTV’s reality series “Making the Band.” But the reformed group has just one obstacle to its efforts to trademark its name: Motown Recordings.
The label’s parent company, Universal Music Group, is trying to block the band from registering “O-Town” as a trademark, arguing it is too similar to the name “Motown.”
According to documents obtained by Variety, O-Town members Jacob Underwood, Erik-Michael Estrada, Trevor Penick and Dan Miller applied for ownership of the O-Town trademark in 2017. However, Universal Music Group, which owns Motown, filed a notice of opposition in April, stating that the similarity between Motown and O-Town could “create confusion, mistake, or deception.”
Reps for UMG and Motown did not grant Variety‘s requests for comment.
O-Town was formed by late music mogul, Lou Pearlman, as part of MTV’s “Making the Band” reality series in 2000, and he acknowledged in interviews over the years that Motown was an inspiration for the name, and the complaint notes the similarities between the group’s and the label’s logos. According to Underwood, who also manages the band, Pearlman trademarked O-Town before the series launched, then once the group members were chosen, he suggested it as a band name.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, that feels closer to our hearts than anything. That makes sense,’ not realizing that he owned the name already,” Underwood tells Variety. “It wasn’t a big deal until we started touring and then it was like, ‘By owning the name, he owns all the rights to what you guys do. You’re in handcuffs.”
Underwood says Pearlman’s refusal to grant the band any ownership was one of many ways the late, disgraced manager made things “difficult” for the group during their heyday and one of the reasons they disbanded in 2003.
In 2008, Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison for one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, which saw him defrauding people out of more than $300 million. Amid his legal troubles, his assets were seized and Underwood says the O-Town trademark was subsequently abandoned.
Pearlman passed away in prison in 2016, by which time O-Town had reformed as a foursome (without original fifth member Ashley Parker Angel,) and released 2014’s Lines and Circles.” They continued to fund their comeback through a Kickstarter campaign, which helped them produce 2017’s “Part 1” EP, which will be combined with new tracks to form their upcoming “OTWN” album. They have also been headlining the Pop 2000 tour with Tyler Hilton, Aaron Carter, Ryan Cabrera and Lance Bass.
With Pearlman deceased and both new music and touring going on, Underwood says the group decided to “finally own our name” and filed the application. He says the band remain perplexed at Universal Music Group’s opposition, given that the group have been operating as O-Town for almost two decades.
“O-Town has been selling records for almost 20 years now – we’ve had T-shirts, pillowcases and everything under the sun sold with this logo on it, so if Motown thinks we’re infringing on their rights or have broken the law, why has it taken this many years to say so?” Underwood says. “To claim that after 20 years of working as O-Town, there’s going to be confusion about our name is ridiculous. They let this be a mark when Lou got it around 1999, so if they have a problem with it now, why didn’t you have a problem with it then?”
“They’re bored and battling us with lawyers because they have more money and nothing to do, and meanwhile we’re managing ourselves and doing everything we can to keep the band afloat after finally having success with our Kickstarter campaign and being back on tour,” Underwood continues. “Every time we file a response it’s around $7,000, and for a band that doesn’t make a lot of money that’s a lot. We were saving all our money to make music videos, promote our album and tour, but now we’re spending all that on lawyers. We just want them off our back to avoid going bankrupt trying to fight this.”
O-Town filed a response to Universal Music Group’s opposition on June 10.