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Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo Embroiled in Legal Dispute Over Rights to ‘Neptunes’ Name

Chad Hugo has accused Pharrell Williams of seeking control of the Neptunes name by claiming sole ownership of new trademarks.

Before Williams was a solo star, The Neptunes produced a slew of radio hits in the early 2000s, including Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” and Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body.” The legendary duo, who have been friends since childhood, were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022.

But in a legal action filed last week at a federal tribunal, attorneys for Hugo accused Pharrell and his company of attempting to unilaterally register trademarks for the Neptunes name – a move they say violates their longstanding agreement that saw the pair split everything equally.

“Throughout their over thirty year history, [Hugo] and Williams agreed to, and in fact, have divided all assets,” wrote Hugo’s attorney Kenneth D. Freundlich, a prominent music industry litigator. “By ignoring and excluding [Hugo] from the any and all applications filed by applicant for the mark ‘The Neptunes,’ applicant has committed fraud in securing the trademarks and acted in bad faith.”

In a statement to Billboard on Monday, a rep for Pharrell said there had been no ill-intent behind the disputed trademark filings: “Pharrell is surprised by this. We have reached out on multiple occasions to share in the ownership and administration of the trademark and will continue to make that offer. The goal here was to make sure a third party doesn’t get a hold of the trademark and to guarantee Chad and Pharrell share in ownership and administration.”

Hugo’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.

At issue in the dispute are three separate applications to register “The Neptunes” as a trademark – one covering the use of the name on streaming music, another for music videos and other content, and a third covering live performances. They were filed in 2022 by PW IP Holdings LLC, Pharrell’s company that also owns such registrations for his band N.E.R.D., his Miami-based Goodtime Hotel, and numerous other brand names connected to the superstar.

In his legal filings last week, Hugo’s attorneys argued that Pharrell had “knowingly and intentionally” filed those applications without required input from Hugo, even though he was “fully aware” that either Hugo or their partnership entity should have been listed as a co-owner:

“Nothing, either written or oral, provided Williams or [PW IP Holdings] with the unilateral authority to register the trademarks.”

Hugo’s attorneys said they’ve “repeatedly” contacted Pharrell’s team about the problem, and that the star’s lawyers had “admitted that [Hugo] is equal co-owner of the trademarks” and promised to include him — a claim that lines up with Williams’ statement on Monday.

But the case claims that sharing never actually happened, partly because Pharrell’s company has insisted on “onerous business terms” that would deprive Hugo of proper control and compensation. The petition did not specify what exactly those “onerous” terms included.

Last week’s filings targeted only with the three recent trademark applications, but Hugo’s case could potentially expand beyond them. That’s because Pharrell’s company already successfully registered The Neptunes name as a trademark for musical sound recordings, and has another pending application to register the name for clothing and other merch.

In his filing last week, Hugo’s lawyers said that the trademark registrations covering sound recordings “and possibly others” would be subject to a future legal action aimed at having them voided.

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