Death of Rock Photographer Invited to John Varvatos Event Leads to Bizarre Lawsuit

John Varvatos Red Carpet - P 2012
Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

John Varvatos Red Carpet - P 2012

Shakespeare once wrote, "He that dies pays all debts." Let us add that those who perish collect upon them too.

On March 24, 2010, the New York boutique store of men's fashion designer John Varvatos was scheduled to host a conversation with Jim Marshall, a legendary photographer whose work included some iconic moments from rock music history, such as The Beatles back stage at their last-ever tour date in 1966, Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and Johnny Cash giving the middle finger at San Quentin prison.

Marshall never made it that night, passing away at the age of 74. 

Varvatos decided to go ahead with the event anyway, paying tribute to his "friendship" and saying that "Jim Marshall's pictures are never going to fade away."

Flash forward to a week ago, when Marshall's estate filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Varvatos for displaying and distributing reproductions of the photographer's work at retail stores throughout the U.S.

Varvatos was right about Marshall -- the images captured by the photographer are likely to endure. Marshall was the chief photographer at Woodstock and given special access to musicians such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, Miles Davis and Ray Charles. Rock stars trusted him and gave him enough material for five books.

Unfortunately for Varvatos, as well as co-defendant Bloomingdale's, Marshall may rest in peace but his surviving rights-holders don't.

According to a lawsuit filed in California federal court last week, Varvatos purchased copies of Marshall's proofs and, without consent, made copies to display at his SoHo store. When Marshall learned of this, he allegedly spoke to Varvatos and told him he had no such right. "That having been clearly communicated, Marshall did Varvatos a favor and allowed him to keep the reproductions on the wall in the one store and the one store only," says the complaint.

But after Marshall's death, Varvatos allegedly took reproductions and displayed them at stores throughout the U.S. 

Marshall's estate is now suing for willful copyright infringement, seeking statutory damages up to $150,000 for each allegedly infringed image. The complaint lists 20 copyrighted photos, so conceivably, damages could rise as high as $3 million.

Varvatos is a noted designer who likes to incorporate the spirit of music into his own work. In recent years, he's announced fashion collections in conjunction with such artists as ZZ Top, Dave Matthews and The Roots. His company didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Here's a video of Varvatos speaking about Marshall on the night of the death when Marshall was scheduled to attend an event at his store:


Twitter: @eriqgardner