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Controversy in WeHo Clubland

Controversy in WeHo Clubland

Courtesy of Joe Sparks

A clubland dust-up in West Hollywood has sparked a lawsuit.

It started in January, when high-powered party promoters Luke Nero and Andrés Rigal announced that they would cancel their colossal Rasputin party, a two-year institution at the Robertson Nightclub. The move was abrupt and unexpected - no explanation was given, though there was clearly tension between the club and the promoters.

The news stunned Joe Sparks, an in-house promoter at the Robertson, whose Magnum Thursdays events drew huge crowds to rooms featuring gyrating dancers and carefully vetted DJs.

Within days, he launched his own Rasputin party.

Sparks' event was slightly different than Nero and Rigal's, whose "Rasputin: Russian Love Machine" finished on January 11. The following Saturday, Sparks debuted his version, also at the Robertson, called "Rasputin: Legends Never Die." It has new DJs, new hosts and dancers in Disney costumes. (Robertson owner Sam Sharif is a backer.)

This didn't go over well with Nero and Rigal, who are also behind popular parties like Summertramp, Mr. Black and Evita. They lashed out at the reboot on social media, mocking the new Rasputin as "fished ... out of some clearance bin.

They revealed that in 2012, they had quietly trademarked the phrase "Rasputin Russian Love Machine." (The name is said to reference Rigal's favorite song, a campy 70s German disco hit.)

"Mr. Nero and Mr. Rigal are actively looking for a new space to revive their event," they wrote on Facebook.

In an unsigned missive on the blog WeHo Confidential, a Robertson representative countered:

Although some of the previous members of the Rasputin party may have abruptly left in an ill-fashioned manner... The legend that is 'Rasputin' is now recognized as a generic name and therefore has lost its protection under federal trademark law.

"THE 'OFFICIAL' RASPUTIN: RUSSIAN LOVE MACHINE Party is still sadly CLOSED," boomed Nero and Rigal in a Facebook response. "Anything in its likeness is illegally profiting off its creators."

On January 17, the Robertson filed suit against Nero, Rigal, several of their partners and various other parties for breach of contract, fraud, and defamation. (View the complaint.)

According to the complaint:

Promoters ... began a campaign to usurp the business created, and fully funded in all respects by [the Robertson].

It goes on:

all defendants herein jointly have began a social media campaign make false accusations[.] (sic) 

The complaint's highlights include anonymous quotes from social-media posts as evidence of defamation, including:

this imitations RASPUTIN fuckery that's trying to be perpetuated is the icing on the SHADE cake

and

apparently integrity is OUT for 2014 

The issue is a complicated one, as it's not clear who owns the event - the promoters who came up with the idea, or the venue owners who hosted it.

"If not provided for in an agreement, the question can be framed as, 'Who would the potential consumers identify as the source of the product or service?'" says Matthew Hintz, an intellectual property attorney who is not connected to the case.

Though since Nero and Rigal hold the trademark, the burden of proof may now fall to the club. "Purported ownership of the trademark is the means to the alleged fraud and other bad deeds," Hintz says.

(Nero and Rigal refused to comment for this story, and this week barred press from their Evita party.) 

For the time being, the new version of Rasputin has continued on Saturday nights without interruption. It is as popular as ever, with Sparks counting more than 1600 attendees at their last event.

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