Nirvana is being sued over the cover for its album Nevermind amid accusations of child pornography and sexual exploitation.
Spencer Elden – the man who was photographed for the cover when he was a four-month-old baby – is asking for damages of at least $150,000 (£109,000) from each of the 15 named defendants in the case, who include band members and representatives from Kurt Cobain’s estate.
The cover, from 1991, shows Elden swimming in a pool naked and reaching for a dollar which was dangled on a fishing line. He became involved with the shoot because the photographer, Kirk Weddle, was a friend of the family.
Now 30, Elden claims his parents didn’t sign a release authorising the use of his image on the album and that the nude image constitutes child pornography. The case argues that the superimposed dollar bill makes the minor seem “like a sex worker” and alleges that Nirvana failed to upkeep a promise to cover Elden’s genitals with a sticker with the text “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile” on it.
“The images exposed Spencer’s intimate body part and lasciviously displayed Spencer’s genitals from the time he was an infant to the present day,” legal papers filed in California which were uploaded to Pitchfork claim.
Non-sexualised photos of infants are generally not considered child pornography under US law.
Elden alleges his “true identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day”.
He claims he “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages” as a result of the artwork, including “extreme and permanent emotional distress” as well as “interference with his normal development and educational progress” and “medical and psychological treatment”.
The suit adds the defendants “knowingly produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography depicting Spencer, and they knowingly received value in exchange for doing so.”
“Despite this knowledge, defendants failed to take reasonable steps to protect Spencer and prevent his widespread sexual exploitation and image trafficking,” it adds.
Elden has recreated the cover in the past to celebrate the album’s anniversaries.
“It’s always been a positive thing and opened doors for me,” he told the Guardian six years ago. “I’m 23 now and an artist, and this story gave me an opportunity to work with Shepard Fairey for five years, which was an awesome experience. He is a huge music connoisseur: when he heard I was the Nirvana baby, he thought that was really cool.”
However, in 2016, he told Time Magazine that he was “upset” by being associated with it.
“I just woke up already being a part of this huge project,” he said. “It’s pretty difficult - you feel like you’re famous for nothing.
“It’s hard not to get upset when you hear how much money was involved,” he continued. “[When] I go to a baseball game and think about it: ‘Man, everybody at this baseball game has probably seen my little baby penis,’ I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked.”