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POP EYE

What's In A Name? A Lot Of Noise To Thomas Dolby

March 22, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Since he was a 14-year-old who "messed around with a lot of tapes," Thomas Morgan Robertson has gone by the name of Thomas Dolby.

You probably know him best as an adventuresome pop star who's notched a Top 5 single ("Blinded by Science"), directed several award-winning videos and worked on numerous sound-track albums.

But Dolby Laboratories--inventors of the renowned Dolby noise reduction system--have viewed him as more of a pest. In fact, the San Francisco-based firm hit the popster with a trademark-infringement lawsuit last year, claiming unauthorized use of its name.

The two warring parties reached a settlement recently, which allows Dolby (the performer) to continue using the company's name "in a limited way," particularly as long as Dolby uses his first name in connection with any "entertainment services."

Dolby (Thomas, that is) has a simpler explanation: "In return for dropping my counter-claim against them, I've signed a licensing agreement making me an official licensee of Dolby Laboratories, though no money actually changes hands."

Even though the case is closed, Dolby is still unhappy, largely because he claims the firm, without notifying him, issued its own "slanted" press release announcing the settlement.

In fact, Dolby was so peeved that he's broken his silence about the case for the first time, condemning Dolby Laboratories as a high-tech villain "who tried to use its corporate might to crush me."

Dolby said the company was "very aggressive" about the whole affair. "They even hired a private detective to investigate me. Posing as a journalist, he came into my home and tried to dig up all sorts of things under the guise of conducting an interview."

Dolby said he first contacted the Dolby firm several years ago when he was starting his pop career. "We reached an agreement that it was OK for me to use the name as long as it didn't bring the company name any ill repute. I think at first they thought I was some sort of punk rocker who might cause problems.

"Everything was fine until I began to move into sound tracks and films. At that point, they filed legal proceedings against me, despite the fact that I made several compromise gestures aimed at satisfying them, such as not endorsing any stereo equipment."

Dolby said he was happy with the settlement, but "angered" by the way the firm released the information, saying: "They didn't handle it well at all, which is why I'm speaking out now."

Dolby Laboratories President Bill Jasper said his firm issued a release after seeing the rival Dolby's version, which he felt was "slanted in his favor." He said his firm "did modify our release slightly," but went ahead and issued a statement "because we didn't want to continue arguing over the language forever."

He declined to comment on Thomas Dolby's assessment of how his firm handled its investigation.

AND WHILE WE'RE ON THAT SUBJECT: What's next for Thomas Dolby? The pop composer, now based in L.A., is putting together a band so he can (gasp) work the local club circuit.

"I haven't made an album of my own in several years and I have a lot of material I want to try out," he explained. "I really don't miss the big stadiums, but I do miss the small clubs. The first place I played here was the Whiskey, so it might be nice to start there. I'm taking out ads and auditioning for band members."

Don't worry--Dolby isn't enamored of high-priced studio talent. "I'm really not looking for perfect musicians. In fact, I'd prefer them to be imperfect, and perhaps a bit eccentric. I'd rather have someone who can make some great music with a fluegelhorn than someone who can do a guitar solo straight out of a Jimmy Page songbook. I'm not out promoting a new record, so there aren't any restrictions on the kind of material we'd do. It's really a band for fun purposes."

Of course, Dolby hasn't moved to L.A. simply to set up shop at Raji's or the Coconut Teaser. After working on several sound-track albums, including what he impishly referred to as "the ill-fated" "Howard the Duck" project, he's trying to break into film. "The main reason I started working on sound tracks was because, over the long term, I'd like to write and direct movies. I'm going to try to do a long-form video which would accompany my next album, and could perhaps be released theatrically as well."

Dolby just finished the sound track for "Gothic," a new Ken Russell film about the adventures of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, which is due out later this year. "It was my first attempt to write orchestral music," Dolby said. "Ken was great to work with--he gave me lots of freedom." Dolby laughed. "In fact, he just wanted everything louder!"

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