Trademarking the Cloud Guitar

Since Prince left us, Dave Rusan of Rusan Guitarworks has been making Cloud guitars to the same specification as Prince’s original guitars. Dave regularly provides superb high quality photos of his work on his Facebook page and these look incredible. What sets Dave apart from any other builder is the attention he puts into all the details, ensuring that he is using authentic dimensions, matching original paint colours, and original components. The quality of his workmanship has no match. I can only dream of owning an original Rusan Cloud.

Sadly Dave Rusan has recently announced that his trade in Cloud guitars is under threat. It seems that Paisley Park have asked him to surrender a trademark that was awarded to him in 2018, and by doing so Dave’s thriving business in creating Cloud guitars will have to stop.

Prince appointed many builders of the Cloud guitar over the years. In 1983 the guitar builders at the Knut-Koupee Music Store (where Dave Rusan worked) were asked if they could copy the Sardonyx bass and create a guitar version. Later, Andy Beech of D’Haitre Guitars built models used by Prince on tour. Schecter Guitars have mass-produced Clouds over the years, for sale in the NPG Stores, at tour merch stands, and most recently at Paisley Park and the My Name is Prince exhibition.

There are plenty of other builders of Clouds that were not appointed by Prince – ranging from fans creating project guitars in their garages and workshops, to companies such as Rare Electric Guitars who produce a range of inexpensive copycats on a commercial scale, and even ESP who marketed a range of Clouds in the Japanese domestic market in the 1990s.

Although the configuration, build quality, and some design elements such as colours vary with these copycats, there is a single fundamental with all of them. The basic shape is the same as the Cloud Bass built by Sardonyx. We know that the original shape of the body, the curl around the jack input, the distinctive horn on the upper bout, and the flamboyant asymmetrical headstock shape, were all designed by Jeffrey Levin, going by the name of Sardonyx. If you ask a casual bystander if the Sardonyx bass and the white Cloud guitar were the same basic design, the answer is yes, every single time. The Cloud bass was a one-off, meant to be used by the builder alone, so there was no reason to apply for a design patent. Jeffrey had no idea how iconic his design would eventually become. So is it fair that Dave Rusan, Paisley Park, or anyone else could establish a trademark or patent for something that was not their original design?

The design details of the Cloud guitar are all present in the Sardonyx Cloud Bass. (Photo from Paisley Park Guitar and Bass book)

Dave Rusan’s posts and subsequent press attention have suggested that he might be unable to fight Paisley Park to keep his trademark. But it wasn’t completely clear what Dave Rusan had actually registered, so I’ve taken a look at the trademark applications that Dave Rusan has submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office. There are three:

[87291711]- A two dimensional drawing of a guitar (the Cloud Guitar). This Trademark is the only one awarded currently to David Rusan. It doesn’t trademark any particular colour of guitar, nor any words, just the drawing itself.

[87646968] – the words “Cloud Guitar”. This trademark was submitted on October 16th 2017, but abandoned in January 2019, soon after Dave Rusan posted on his Facebook page that he had received notification from Paisley Park that they wished him to stop using the trademark. What is noteworthy is that Paisley Park Enterprises Inc. also submitted a trademark for “Cloud Guitar” [88141856] on October 3rd 2018, and this has yet to be awarded.

[87064806]- The design of the Cloud Guitar itself. This was submitted 55 days after Prince died in June 2016, and abandoned in March 2017. It is not clear why this was abandoned, although given the amount of commercial use this design has had since the 80s it is easy to imagine that this would not have been awarded.

It’s easy to imagine that if the trademark of the name “Cloud Guitar” enters into the ownership of Paisley Park then they may attempt to enforce their rights and issue desist letters to those that use the term. This could well affect those copycat builders, as well as artists, bloggers like me, Facebook groups and others. If Dave Rusan had been awarded this trademark I can’t imagine that he would start chasing down others using the same term. In his ownership I’m sure we would have all been safe from reprisal.

The iconic shape of the Cloud Guitar has provided inspiration to others over the years. Its likeness has appeared in works of art by artists such as Blule, Dean Russo, and Spencer Derry (aka 3rdeyeboy). It has appeared on notebooks, phone cases, t-shirts, and Hard Rock Cafe pins. The white Cloud also appeared in the recently released video for Holly Rock. I guess given the trademark awarded to Dave Rusan, at least the animation in that video that features is close to violating Dave’s trademark of the 2D guitar image.

To date it doesn’t appear that Paisley Park have attempted to register the design of the Cloud guitar itself as a trademark or patent. As we know from the multitude of Fender and Gibson copies, it is very difficult to assert this kind of trademark and prevent others from creating copycat guitars. Tiny changes in dimensions are enough to differentiate from the original and avoid violating copyright. From the Japanese”lawsuit” guitars created in the 70s and 80s, we know that the only details that has been successfully protected has been the headstock and logos.

The creation of copycat cloud guitars dates as far back as the 90s, and really it is far too late to now attempt to prevent these guitars from being made. More than 40 years after it was built, surely the basic design of the Cloud is in the public domain. There appears to be a market for Cloud guitars at all price points, with Dave Rusan’s being the most (reassuringly) expensive. What sets Dave Rusan apart from the others is his skill and attention to detail. Surely he isn’t threatening Paisley Park or the estate?

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