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Singers wrestled Sony Corp. over names and won

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Singers wrestled Sony Corp. over names and won

Making it as a jazz singer is daunting enough on its own. So imagine having to battle a giant corporation at the same time.

By coincidence, two singers performing separate gigs at the Rrazz Room this week each can claim an unusual notch on their belts. They fought Sony Corp. and won.

They did it from opposite sides of the legal battlefield. Sony Holland, who croons at the Rrazz Wednesday through Saturday, had a pretty obvious conflict with Sony Corp. The company didn't actually demand she change her name, but they did contest her Internet domain name,

Suede, who plays the Rrazz Monday and Tuesday, went after Sony because the company had another group called Suede - a now-defunct British pop group - that was causing major headaches for the singer.

Suede, 52, born Suzanne deBronkart, lives in Wellfleet, Mass., near Cape Cod. With a big, brassy blues voice that she uses to great effect on her new big-band album "Dangerous Moods," Suede is a superstar in the gay-lesbian community, although it would be a mistake to pigeonhole her as a "women's musician." On the CD she sings tunes such as Tom Waits' "New Coat of Paint," Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and George Gershwin's "Do It Again."

By contrast, Holland, 45, uses a silky, buttery tone to deliver more classic jazz-singer repertoire, although she performs many originals written by her husband, Jerry Holland. They live in Russian Hill, and he plays guitar behind her on a twice-monthly gig at Cafe Divine in North Beach. She also plays frequently at Enrico's. On her latest CD, "Out of This World," Holland does standards such as the title cut and "Old Devil Moon," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "In a Sentimental Mood," along with her husband's tunes.

The Chronicle spoke to Suede and Holland about their careers and their Sony Corp. travails.

Q: How did the beef with Sony Corp. get started?

Holland: I got my first letter from them in 2005. They wanted me to surrender my domain to them, I said, "Absolutely no. Are you nuts?" They filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization. There were three things that had to be decided. The first was, is there similarity or confusion? We never contested that one. The second was, do I have a legitimate reason to maintain my domain? And three, did I register my domain in bad faith, meaning am I trying to sell it at a profit?

Suede: I was playing a huge equal-rights rally for the LGBT community in Washington, D.C. It was 1993. Someone backstage told me, Rolling Stone is here to talk to you. I'm like, "Rolling Stone? Fantastic!" So I go over to the guy and he says, "Oh, you represent the band?" I said, "Well, actually, I am the band." Eventually it became really clear it wasn't me he was looking for. But I was intrigued about this other band. About a month later, Rolling Stone came out with an issue of "winners and losers." And right on the cover in the loser column was "Suede." So I realized this was going to be a problem and I had my attorney contact Sony.

Q: Then what happened?

Holland: The attorneys kept going back and forth. The whole thing for me has been ridiculous, a real headache. Here I am just trying to build a career. ... But the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) ruled in my favor in October. Luckily, I had a fan who's a friend, a lawyer who did this pro bono.

Suede: It took my attorney several attempts to get them to respond. When they finally did respond, Sony said they didn't see any reason why there would be confusion, which is what you need to show in a trademark case.

Q: How was it a trademark case?

Suede: I had trademarked my name years before. And it was obvious Sony didn't bother doing a basic trademark search before picking up the other band. So then Suede releases its first album, and it has two very androgynous people kissing on the cover. It could easily have been two women. So, this was a very clear example of confusion between two musical groups. There were all kinds of other cases of confusion, too. Club owners had to return tickets. The band's fans were buying my stuff then bringing it back.

Q: What was the outcome?

Suede: A judge ruled in my favor in, I think it was '95. The judge said the band had to change its name for their gigs in the U.S. They changed it to the London Suede. But the great thing was the judge said I had the right to approve the name. I was so tempted to make them change it to the Anglo Saxon Suede Reaction (she laughs). There's still a lot of confusion, though, even though the group broke up five years ago. I continue to get hate mail from their fans blaming me for their demise.

Q: How did you afford the lawyers?

Suede: It got very pricey. You know, I'm not like those other single-name gals, Madonna, Cher and Björk. But the settlement we agreed on was enough to cover all my legal fees. Plus, my attorney in D.C. did it gratis. He was just extraordinary.



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