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Cloning the Coasters

Last New Year’s Eve, 2,000 festive souls gathered in the Westchester County Center near my suburban New York home to …

Last New Year’s Eve, 2,000 festive souls gathered in the Westchester County Center near my suburban New York home to hear the ebullient sounds of the ’50s group, the Coasters. Meanwhile, more than a thousand miles to the south, another group also calling itself the Coasters was singing such hits as “Yakety Yak,” “Poison Ivy,” and “Charlie Brown” at a New Year’s Eve gala in Orlando, FL. In fact, if the mathematical calculations of original Coasters member Carl Gardner are correct, as many as 10 other groups billing themselves as the Coasters may have been performing on the very same night at different venues around the country.

Gardner, a member of the original Coasters group that has been enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, thinks something is wrong here. A few days after the multiple Coasters concerts took place, he told Gannett Suburban Newspapers that he had spent $30,000 in the past six years fighting the various cloned Coasters that have sprung up. For example, the Coasters ensemble that performed near my home does not contain a single original Coaster, but is headed by a man who sang with two original Coasters after the band broke up in the 1960s.

This man, Billy Richard, claims to own part of the Coasters trademark and, according to his manager, appears with his cloned Coasters band “80 percent of the time.” But he was not present at the Westchester County Center on New Year’s Eve, meaning that no one on stage that night had ever performed in the original group called the Coasters. Quite the contrary: The group consisted of singers whose closest tie to the original Coasters was that they frequently had sung with a singer who used to sing with a couple of singers who used to be in the original Coasters 40 years ago. And he wasn’t even present that evening.

Why do I mention this? Because the courts’ refusal to halt the cloning of the Coasters poses grave legal threats to the way we do business. Imagine, for example, if a couple of guys who once worked for Steve Jobs in the glory days when Apple was revolutionizing the personal computer business then went out and established a new company called Apple. Imagine if some former Dean Witter employees decided to set up a roving brokerage firm called Dean Witter. Imagine if a handful of managers who had been with Sam Walton from the beginning set up a bunch of barn-like retail emporiums and advertised them as Wal-Marts. Wouldn’t the public be a little confused? Wouldn’t the original Wal-Marts be a little upset? Wouldn’t the courts take a little notice?

You say this couldn’t happen? Don’t be so sure.

In New York City, a public relations war has raged for years between rival eateries billing themselves, variously, as Ray’s Pizza, Original Ray’s Pizza, and Famous Ray’s Pizza, all of which confuses tourists who come to New York in search of the perfect slice of pizza. And, again in the field of rock ‘n’ roll, a legal brouhaha erupted a couple of years ago when two competing bands, each claiming to be the original ’70s art rock band, Yes, hit the road. And don’t forget all the confusion over precisely who comprises Jefferson Airplane and its twin subsidiaries, the Starship and Jefferson Starship.

Gardner says a serious economic issue is involved. He maintains that his group, the “legitimate” Coasters, takes a financial hit, because the various cloned Coasters are willing to work for much less money. But is it difficult to imagine the same thing happening in other business ventures? Imagine if someone who once worked for George Soros’ Quantum Fund opened a cloned Quantum Fund in rural Georgia that charged lower fees than the original. Imagine if a chef employed at the original Quilted Giraffe in Manhattan opened a new restaurant called the Quilted Giraffe in Saginaw, MI, and attracted customers by only charging $12 for a glass of wine. Imagine if a group of pilots from the first Concorde began flying a knock-off Concorde out of Des Plaines, IL.

How do the cloned Coasters get away with this duplicity? Gardner says it’s because both the public and local consumer-affairs officials seem indifferent to the problem.

“People don’t care,” he complains bitterly. “They accept any four black guys. They don’t have the knowledge. Would that happen with the Beatles? No way.” No, but it could happen with other cloned ensembles, and this is why the courts must move quickly and decisively to resolve the cloned Coasters situation. Does this society need a dozen clones of the Colorado Rockies baseball team wandering around the nation muffing fly balls, misplaying easy grounders, and throwing the ball into the stands? Do we need a dozen clones of the sexist rap group, 2 Live Crew, spewing obscenities in concert halls? Do we need a dozen alumni of Mike Milken’s junk-bond empire resurfacing as cloned versions of his bucket shop on Rodeo Drive, all passing themselves off as the original Drexel Burnham Lambert?

Last but not least, consider this terrifying thought: If the courts do not take immediate steps to shut down all the knock-off Coasters groups, it could embolden U.S. Postal Service or Internal Revenue Service employees to spin themselves off into dozens of cloned IJSPS’s and IRS’s.

I’m warning you: This could get ugly.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.