Tom Waits Sues Over Personality Rights

Turn on your TV and you'll hear the Who, the Rolling Stones and even the group Kansas selling everything from cars to telecommunication services. But singer-songwriter Tom Waits abhors television commercials. He simply won't do them. Waits, 55, is known for his gritty, croaking voice and his songs celebrating the underbelly of society, the characters who live on the edge.

Last year, Waits was approached by Adam Opel AG, a unit of General Motors Corp., about doing television ads. He declined, citing his policy of not doing commercials. Waits said of commercials, "Commercials are an unnatural use of my work. It's like having a cow's udder sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating."

Painful or not, Opel went ahead and hired someone who sounded enough like Tom Waits to fool his fans, and used music and instrumentation reminiscent of Tom Waits, and produced a TV commercial that was aired in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway.

Now, Waits is seeking damages of $280,000 and any profits derived from the ads, citing his "personality rights."

Waits is referring to the tort, or civil wrong, that says that one party may not appropriate the name or likeness of another, or unreasonably place a person in a false light before the public.

Like Sinatra's unique phrasing and B.B. King's blues licks, Waits' gritty, grainy voice is his signature and is immediately recognizable to his fans. They saw the commercials airing in Scandinavia and alerted Waits by asking the name of the track aired. It sounded a lot like two other Waits compositions, "Dream Away" and "Innocent When You Dream."

Opel should not have been surprised to get hit with the lawsuit. This is not the first time Tom Waits has sued companies who use his bluesy, gravelly vocal style in TV commercials.

In 1993 Waits was awarded $2.5 million when he sued Frito-Lay and its ad agency, for mimicking his voice in a TV spot. A year later he sued his own record company for licensing "Heartattack and Vine" for a Levi's commercial without consulting him, and in 2000 he sued Audi for using a song strikingly similar to his "Innocent When You Dream," complete with a Waitsian voice, in their TV ad. A similar case occurred with a Lancia car ad in Italy, making this the third car company to appropriate Waits' voice and music. Waits prevailed in those lawsuits, and will likely do so again.

Regarding this suit, Waits issued a statement that said, "If I stole an Opel, Lancia, or Audi, put my name on it and resold it, I'd go to jail. But over there they ask, you say no, and they profit from the association and I lose—time, money and credibility. What's that about?"

Someone evidently thinks Tom Waits' voice can sell cars. But Waits seeks to remain true to himself. Like a diamond who wants to stay coal.