A federal jury has concluded that the long-running hit musical Jersey Boys infringes the copyright of an unpublished autobiography.
The musical was inspired by the true story of the musical group the Four Seasons. In 2006 the show won a Tony Award. It has grossed over $549 million to date and was made into a film by Clint Eastwood in 2014.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the jury determined that 10% of the show's success was due to infringement of the autobiography of Tommy DeVito, a member of the Four Seasons.
The autobiography was ghost-written by the late Rex Woodward, a Texas lawyer and rock-and-roll journalist.
As Forbes reported, DeVito had only an eight-grade education and felt he needed help telling his story. DeVito and Woodward agreed to split the profits from the book.
DeVito also entered into an agreement with his former band-mates, including Frankie Valli, to create the musical based on their lives.
DeVito shared his unpublished book with the creators of the musical. In a 2007 interview, the director of Jersey Boys said that the DeVito manuscript "was just so delicious" and that the writers of the musical “had a couple of sequences in their treatment that were clearly inspired by this autobiography.”
Woodward's widow, who inherited his intellectual property, tried to have the book published after the musical became a hit. She later sued DeVito when she discovered that he had registered the copyright in his own name. She was able to update the registration to show her husband as the co-author.
Under US copyright law, all copyright owners must give their permission in order for others to make certain uses of a copyrighted work. Although DeVito had given his permission, Woodward and his widow had not.
The defendants — including the writers, director, and producers of the show and some of the former band members — argued that the musical was based on facts derived from interviews with several group members, as well as published articles.
"You can't own historical events," the defendant's lawyer said.
The judge explained to the jury how certain material in the book may or may not be protected by copyright. For example, a story about how a band member came up with the tune for "Sherry" could have come from several band members who were present at the time, and not necessarily from the book.
According to Forbes,
The jurors did not indicate which parts of the autobiography were copied. Yet, Judge Robert C. Jones identified eleven similarities between the manuscript and the musical, including the dialogue surrounding songs, the characterization of individuals, and the description of scenes.
The amount of damages to be awarded has not yet been determined but could easily run into the tens of millions of dollars. The plaintiff is seeking damages not just for the US productions of the show but also for productions in Canada, the UK, and Australia.
A US jury may award damages based on copyright infringements that takes place in other countries.
The defendants may appeal the decision.