Beatles Concert Documentary Causes Controversy Nearly 50 Years After Original Concert
A New York based film company is suing music publisher Sony/ATV (“Sony”) for $100,000,000 over an alleged wrongful interference with a contract to distribute a documentary film about The Beatles first concert in the United States. According to the complaint which was filed on October 16th in the Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, the Plaintiff, Ace Arts, LLC, (“Ace”) asserted that Sony, in an attempt to curry favor with its business partner Apple Corps put forth false allegations as to the validity of certain copyrights for footage in the film after having found out that Apple Corps planned to make a similar documentary.
The footage in question comes from The Beatles’ first live public concert performance in the United States. Two days after their famed appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 11th, 1964, the Beatles played to a sold-out Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. The concert was filmed and subsequently, in March of 1964, movie theaters across the country screened the film where more than 500,000 attended. These events (The Ed Sullivan Show appearance, along with the Washington Coliseum concert and its subsequent screening) are often considered to be the beginning of the ‘British invasion,’ a period in which British music acts came to the United States with great success and acclaim, ultimately making a great impact on the American music scene as well as American pop culture in general.
Beginning in 2009 the plaintiff, Ace, using the 35 minute Washington, D.C. concert footage produced an 86 minute documentary film titled, “The Beatles: The Lost Concert.” The documentary consisted of the entire concert footage as well as original sequences and interviews with attendees, music historians, and music legends such as Chuck Berry and Sid Bernstein, in an exploration of this historically significant cultural event.
In 2009 Ace contacted Screenvision Exhibition, Inc. (“Screenvision”) to distribute the film, and subsequently executed a contract for the distribution of the film in more than 500 theaters across the United States. The contract further stipulated that the documentary was to premier at the Ziegfeld Theater, in New York, on May 6, 2011. In 2010, Ace and Sony agreed to terms for a synchronization license, in which Ace agreed to provide royalties to Sony for the right to use songs that Sony owned that were performed during the concert.
The complaint alleges that in late September 2010, Sony learned that Apple Corps was planning to release a film of the Washington Coliseum concert in some form. Motivated by its business relationship with Apple Corps, the complaint alleges that Sony went on a campaign in which it made false statements about the validity of certain song rights to Screenvision, threatened legal action, and filed a frivolous lawsuit in England, for the sole purpose of interfering with the film. These actions caused Screenvision to refuse to perform their contract, and consequently without that distribution materially harmed the commercial success of the documentary.
The rights to the music and works of the Beatles have been a subject of contention and litigation for decades. While it follows that creations worth so much to so many people would be commoditized and ultimately disputed, it is a sad state of affairs that an art form that unites so many continues to divide in the legal world.