On January 9, L.A. GUNS guitarist Tracii Guns and vocalist Phil Lewis filed a complaint in California District Court against their longtime former bandmate, drummer Steve Riley. Joining Riley as defendants in the case are the three musicians — including “classic-era” L.A. GUNS bassist Kelly Nickels — who perform in his recently launched rival version of L.A. GUNS; that group’s manager, booking agent and merchandiser; and Australia’s Golden Robot Records, which recently announced the signing of Riley’s version of the group.
The complaint, which requests a trial by jury, alleges that Riley’s version of L.A. GUNS (referred to in the case docket as “the infringing L.A. GUNS”) is creating “unfair competition” through its unauthorized usage of the L.A. GUNS trademark. In addition, Guns and Lewis are seeking relief from and/or against false advertising, breach of contract and unauthorized usage of their likenesses.
At its core, the complaint calls into question Riley’s claim of partial ownership of the L.A. GUNS name and logo and alleges that his usage of both has been unauthorized. In addition, Guns and Lewis claim — as Guns has done publicly in the past — that Riley has embezzled much of the group’s publishing proceeds over the past two decades.
Despite leaving the band soon after the release of 2002’s “Waking The Dead” to focus on BRIDES OF DESTRUCTION (his short-lived supergroup with MÖTLEY CRÜE bassist Nikki Sixx), Guns “is the owner of common law trademark righs” for the L.A. GUNS name and logo, the complaint claims. It notes that Guns founded the band in 1983, four years before Riley joined, and that Riley did not perform on the group’s 1984 debut EP and contributed to just a single track on their 1987 self-titled full-length debut.
According to the complaint, Riley was fired from L.A. GUNS in 1992 for “assaulting” Lewis. He rejoined in 1996 after Lewis temporarily left the group. That same year, the complaint states that a company formed and controlled by Riley began to “collect performance and mechanical royalties of the L.A. GUNS albums and performances,” but has since failed to pay out any of the “over $200,000” in royalties collected from “just one record label, as well as additional amounts from other sources.”
Three years later, the complaint says that, “purporting to ‘help’ Guns protect the name of the band bearing Guns’s own name,” Riley registered a federal trademark for the L.A. GUNS name and logo — but now, two decades later, Guns claims that the “Stephen Riley and Traci [sic] Guns Partnership” “is not and was never a valid entity.” “No such partnership was ever formed,” the complaint alleges. “Guns never agreed to share ownership of the L.A. GUNS trademark with Riley or any such partnership.” In addition, the complaint states that Guns “never agreed to allowed Riley to share ownership of the” L.A. GUNS trademark despite Riley’s contention that he owns 49 percent of the rights.
“Guns never intended to convey any ownership interest to Riley (or any partnership) in the L.A. GUNS mark,” the complaint states. “Riley and Guns had no written partnership agreement, nor did they have an oral partnership agreement, nor did they act in a manner consistent with the intent to create a partnership pertaining to the ownership of any L.A. GUNS mark.”
The complaint further says that the “Stephen Riley and Traci [sic] Guns Partnership” never registered a fictitious business name, as required under California law; never filed a tax return; has no bank accounts; and has no accounting records of any kind.
Interestingly, the complaint acknowledges Guns’s 2002 departure from the group, but describes it as “a brief hiatus from live performances and recording new music.” It also stipulates that Guns “initially agreed to allow Riley to continue to tour and perform” as L.A. GUNS, but only for a two-year period, after which Guns would return to the group.
“However, shortly thereafter, Guns discovered that Riley had embezzled and/or converted royalties due and owing to Guns and other performers and songwriters,” the complaint alleges. At that point, Guns allegedly “revoked Riley’s license to use” the L.A. GUNS name.
It was because of this “falling out,” the complaint says, that Guns “was not interested in rejoining” his own band, at which point he formed a competing version of the group. Still, the complaint alleges that because Guns founded the band and is its most recognizable member, any other version of L.A. GUNS should be considered “unauthorized” and “infringing.”
“The Tracii Guns version of L.A. GUNS is the real version of the band in the public’s mind,” the complaint claims. “When the public goes to see L.A. GUNS or thinks they are going to see L.A. GUNS, they go to see the band containing its namesake… and they go to hear the signature voice of Lewis, who recorded the lead vocals on nearly every L.A. GUNS album. They do not go to hear Riley, a drummer who, though [he] admittedly played on a number of L.A. GUNS albums, is neither the face nor the sound of L.A. GUNS.”
The complaint also states that Riley in 2015 received an advance of $13,750 from merchandiser Epic Rights, a company to which he purportedly claimed to be “the sole and exclusive owner” of the L.A. GUNS trademark.
According to the complaint, Guns “has been injured by Defendants’ unfair competition,” while he and Lewis have “suffered harm including damages and and irreparable injury to their goodwill.” It also claims that Riley’s L.A. GUNS was formed “with the intent of tricking and confusing consumers into believing that the infringing L.A. GUNS band is the original [Tracii] Guns version” of the group.
In addition to actual and punitive damages, Guns and Lewis are seeking a “permanent injunction” that restrains all of the named defendants from using the L.A. GUNS name, logo and likeness, as well as “a declaration that Guns is the sole owner of the common law trademark rights” for the L.A. GUNS moniker “and any related design marks.”
For much of the 21st Century, there have been two competing versions of L.A. GUNS — one featuring Riley (which, until 2016, also included Lewis), and another featuring Guns. After Guns and Lewis reunited in 2016, Riley’s version of the group disbanded, but the former W.A.S.P. drummer relaunched a new version last year with Nickels, guitarist Scott Griffin and vocalist/guitarist Kurt Frohlich. The group announced last month that it had completed recording its upcoming Golden Robot debut for a planned 2020 release.