Virginia Beach legends Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo in legal battle over ‘Neptunes’ name rights

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In the more than three decades since Virginia Beach natives Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo formed their famous songwriting and producing duo The Neptunes, they’ve been co-owners of the business and divided its assets equally, according to a recent legal filing by Hugo.

That included the business’s intellectual property rights, publishing rights and agreements, as well as all advances, fees and royalties paid to The Neptunes, the filing said.

But all that changed in late 2022, when Williams and his company sought to obtain trademarks for The Neptunes in Williams’ name only, according to a notice of opposition Hugo filed last week with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The legal filing was first reported Monday by Billboard magazine.

“Applicant knowingly and intentionally filed applications for the marks THE NEPTUNES for his own benefit without including (Hugo) or the General Partnership as an owner of the applications,” the notice said. “By ignoring and excluding (Hugo) from 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 toward (Hugo).”

A representative for Williams said there was “no ill-intent” behind the trademark filings.

“Pharrell is surprised by this,” said a statement provided Monday evening to The Virginian-Pilot. “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.”

Kenneth Freundlich, a California-based music industry attorney who represents Hugo in the case, declined to comment Monday.

The notice said Hugo’s representatives have repeatedly tried to work out the co-ownership issues with Williams’ counsel, but have been unsuccessful.

“Applicant’s counsel has in fact admitted that (Hugo) is equal co-owner of the trademarks and repeatedly stated that 50% of the rights would be transferred to (Hugo),” the notice said. “Applicant, however, has never made the transfer. Applicant also has conditioned the transfer upon (Hugo) agreeing to onerous business terms which would deprive (Hugo) of control of and compensation from the trademarks.”

Hugo and Williams met when they were middle school students attending a summer camp for gifted and talented students in Virginia Beach. Williams later graduated from Princess High School, where he played drums in the high school band. Hugo graduated from Kempsville High School, where he played tenor saxophone.

The two formed The Neptunes in 1992 and debuted their act at a talent show in Virginia Beach. They were discovered shortly after that by R&B producer Teddy Riley and their careers took off. As The Neptunes, they have won numerous awards together, including three Grammy Awards, and were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022. They both attended an event at Princess Anne High School in 2019, during which the mayor of Virginia Beach gave them a key to the city.

Among the hits the two have produced together are Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body,” Snoop Dog’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot,” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

Jane Harper,