An Autocratic Approach to Music Copyright? The potential negative impacts of restrictive rights on a composers legacy: The case of the Zappa Family Trust

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Since the death of Frank Zappa, there has been an ongoing legal battle between the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT) and the so-called tribute bands that are determined to continue translating his music through live and recorded media. Established soon after his death by his wife Gail Zappa, the ZFT currently holds the copyright to all of Frank Zappa’s ‘official’ recordings and commercial rights, and its fierce protection of copyright has led to the sanctioning of countless ‘cease and desist’ orders, sent mainly to tribute artists in the USAand Europe. Their most long-standing conflict is with the Zappanale Festival in Bad Doberan, Germany, the largest Zappa tribute festival in the world. After the ZFT initially sued its organizers (the Arf Society) in early 2008 for trademark infringement, German courts eventually ruled in favour of the festival in June 2010, deciding that the ZFT could not prove it was actively using its trademarks in Germany. Although this case centred around trademark infringement, most of the Zappa Family Trust objections are centred around the rights of musicians or venue/festival organizers to perform Zappa’s music, a contention that is still ongoing today. Despite the objections of the Zappa Family Trust, it could be argued that tribute ensembles not only pay direct homage to Zappa’s legacy, but also keep his memory alive by interfacing with both his long-standing audience, and with a younger generation who may not be aware of his music. The most (in)famous of the rock based ensembles is entitled Zappa Plays Zappa, which has the unusual credit of being ‘legally’ sanctified to perform his music live. This legality is no coincidence, as the band is headed by Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, and features the ‘Vaultmeister’ responsible for compiling the legal recordings emanating from the Zappa Family Trust - Joe Travers. After outlining the means through which Zappa consistently translated and adapted his own and other composers’ work, this article explores the irony of the Zappa Family Trust position, in addition to how and why such a diverse range of ensembles are so intent on continuing to engage with his music, despite the legal challenges outlined above. The article will conclude by comparing Zappa’s legacy to the philosophies of both the tribute bands and the ZFT, in addition to considering the potential impacts restrictive rights impose on creative practitioners.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)302 - 316
Number of pages14
JournalContemporary Theatre Review
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 18 Aug 2011


  • frank zappa
  • copyright
  • zappa family trust


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