The estate of late singer Michael Jackson has accused the Walt Disney Company and its subsidiary ABC of copyright infringement.
The claim, which alleges that a TV documentary about Jackson used his music and footage without a licence, was filed at the US District Court for the Central District of California Western Division yesterday, May 30.
Disney’s two-hour documentary, “The Last Days of Michael Jackson”, aired on ABC on March 24. According to the claim, the programme did not focus on Jackson’s last days as the title suggested, but rather gave a “mediocre” insight into his life as an entertainer.
“Unable to make a compelling presentation about Michael Jackson on its own, Disney decided to exploit the Jackson estate’s IP without permission or obtaining a licence for its use,” said the claim.
Jackson’s estate said that its IP is the “lifeblood” of its business and that it wasn’t even approached by ABC for a licence or informed of the use of its material.
In total, the documentary allegedly used 30 different copyright-protected works without permission.
These include the songs “Billie Jean”, “Beat It” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”.
The documentary also featured parts of protected music videos such as “Thriller” and “Black or White”.
Other material used without permission includes clips from the Jackson film “This Is It”, concert footage, and footage of Jackson’s daughter, Paris Jackson, commenting about her father.
Upon learning that the documentary trailer would feature copyright footage two days before it aired, the estate contacted Disney. On March 22, a Disney attorney allegedly responded to the estate and said Disney would remove the copyright-protected images “as a courtesy”.
The attorney also informed the estate that small portions of protected music would be used in the documentary.
The claim alleged that the Disney attorney said that use of the material was “fair” because the programme was a documentary.
Jackson’s estate wrote two further letters on March 22 and March 23, but Disney allegedly ignored them.
The estate is seeking damages and all profits from the alleged infringement.
A spokesperson for ABC News said it has not yet had the opportunity to review the complaint. "The ABC News documentary explored the life, career and legacy of Michael Jackson, who remains of great inerest to people worldwide, and did not infringe on his estate's rights."
Michael Colledge, senior associate at UK-based law firm Russell-Cooke, said the success of Disney's argument that the material has been used fairly will depend on how much of the copyright material has been used.
"The US defence of fair use is broader and more permissive than the much more limited defences available in most European states, where the full use of copyrighted songs or extended clips will virtually never satisfy this defence," explained Colledge.
"It is generally a matter of fact, degree and impression in each case as to how a fair-minded person may use the copyrighted work."
He added that setting up web alerts can ensure companies become aware of their name and brand being used elsewhere as soon as possible.
"Companies and IP owners can ensure their IP is protected by ensuring that their marks and IP is registered in all their key markets where registration is possible. Companies should also have regular IP audits and an infringement policy or strategy in place.”