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Discovery of B.B. King guitar at heart of copyright infringement case

It all began when Eric Dahl purchased a Gibson guitar at a Las Vegas pawnshop in 2009.

Dahl paid about $2,200 for the B.B. King Lucille model and later made an exciting discovery: It was the original “Prototype 1” model the guitar company had presented to the blues legend on his 80th birthday in 2005. King had performed with the guitar until the summer of 2009, when it was stolen from his home.

In November 2009, Dahl went to King’s office in Las Vegas to return the guitar. To show his appreciation, King autographed another Gibson Lucille and gave it to Dahl during the meeting.

Dahl, who now lives in Tennessee, later told the story in his 2013 book “B.B. King’s Lucille and the Loves Before Her.”

That story is now at the center of a copyright infringement case filed by Dahl against Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and two other companies. Dahl alleges Toyota started airing a television advertisement last year that “presented an adapted visual interpretation of the story” contained in Chapters 25 through 27 of his book.

“Obviously he was proud of the book, and he took the steps to register it with the copyright office,” said Las Vegas attorney Jeffrey Galliher, who represents Dahl.

Galliher said Dahl filed the lawsuit to protect the story that he wrote and published.

“It’s important for holders of intellectual property to protect that,” he said.

Also named as defendants in the federal case are the advertising firm Saatchi &Saatchi North America Inc. and the video production company Smuggler Inc., both based in California. King, who is now 89, is not a defendant.

The defendants contend Dahl’s book “is not substantially similar” to their 30-second ad for the 2015 Toyota Camry, which features a young woman who purchases a storage locker and finds a guitar labeled “Lucille” inside. The woman tracks down the previous owner, B.B. King, who autographs it and gives it back to her.

“The concept of a musician who loses a musical instrument which is later found and returned is not unique to plaintiff nor can he claim copyright protection over all such stories,” according to a defense motion to dismiss the case. “Nor does the fact that the musician in both stories is Mr. King change that result.”

In a March 10 order, U.S. District Judge James Mahan denied the motion.

The Las Vegas judge concluded that Dahl’s complaint “adequately alleges similarities between the plot, characters, and sequence of events, among other factors, of the two works.”

Parties on both sides of the case are in the process of gathering evidence for trial. No trial date has been set.

Galliher said Dahl’s story contained a “unique enough series of events,” which was mirrored by the Toyota ad.

He said one shared detail was particularly significant: the discovery of a Gibson Lucille owned by King.

“That subset of guitars — Gibson ‘Lucilles’ which were once owned by B.B. King — is so discrete that defendants’ reference to it as simply ‘a musical instrument’ is like calling a pink 1957 Cadillac once owned by Elvis Presley merely ‘an automobile,’  ” the lawyer wrote in one court document.

“Defendants now seek to deny the iconic nature of the instrument itself even while that is precisely the reason they utilized it in their commercial.”

King’s official website includes history about the Lucille guitar. According to the website, King was performing at a dance in Arkansas in the mid-1950s when two men got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene stove, setting the hall on fire. King raced outside, then realized he had left his “beloved $30 acoustic guitar inside.”

“He rushed back inside the burning building, narrowly escaping death,” according to King’s website. “When he later found out that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille, he decided to give the name to his guitar to remind him never to do a crazy thing like fight over a woman.

Ever since, each one of B.B.’s trademark Gibson guitars has been called Lucille.”

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Find her on Twitter: @CarriGeer.

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