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The Lady and the Lawsuit

28 December 2011

In the earlier post today about HarperCollins, PG mentioned the granting of rights to publish using new technology by the holder of a copyright. One of the comments correctly pointed to a case PG was thinking about.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Sitting in her wheelchair, frail and with failing eyesight, singer Peggy Lee hardly fits the image of a Hollywood giant killer.

But when the 70-year-old Lee rolls her chair into Los Angeles Superior Court on Wednesday, she thinks she has a good chance of bringing the mammoth Walt Disney Company to its knees, or at least to its checkbook. Lee is suing Disney for $50 million, charging breach of contract and unlawful enrichment over the videocassette release of Lady and the Tramp.

Lee has already convinced the court that Disney violated their original 1952 contract by releasing the tape without her permission. Lee co-wrote six songs and performed the voices of four characters in the film, which has earned more than $140 million altogether – $90 million alone from the video sale, according to her attorney.

. . . .

In Lady and the Tramp, Lee provided the voices for the characters of the torch-singer dog Peg, the Siamese cats Si and Am, and Lady’s owner Darling – and was paid $3,500. She and her writing partner, Sonny Burke, earned another $1,000 for the use of six songs he and Lee collaborated on for the movie. The pair retained all rights for phonographic recordings and transcriptions, but their contract – like the contracts of most performers of the day – didn’t foresee the advent of video and the huge audience it would provide for their work.

According to attorneys on both sides, the case hangs on the court’s interpretation of the term transcription.

Disney is arguing that the term, as it was used in the 1952 contract between Lee and the studio, was not intended to cover future technology, such as video.

“Our position… is that the term referred to audio recording discs, primarily used in radio broadcasting,” Clair said. Disney, he said, retained the right to use Lee’s voice for radio, television, and according to the contract, “all other improvements and devices which are now or hereafter may be used.”

But Deborah Nesset, Lee’s attorney, argues that Lee retained the rights to transcriptions in order to protect herself against just such a claim by Disney. Nesset insists, and the court has agreed, that a “transcription” is simply a copy of Lee’s work – in any form.

. . . .

Lady and the Tramp was a theatrical success in the mid-50s, and was re-released several times. It was a major hit on video, outstripping Top Gun as the hottest video seller of 1987. More than 3 million copies were sold.

“When they came out with the cassette, I thought I would look at my contract,” said Lee. She did, and after consulting with an attorney, determined that the portion that forbade Disney to make and sell transcriptions could be applied to videotapes.

. . . .

“People are coming out of the woodwork and suing about this,” said Nesset, Lee’s attorney, but it’d a difficult road. “A lot of these people are quite elderly. A lot of people are dead. When the estate brings a lawsuit, it’s not going to be as effective as the actual performer.”

According to Thomas White, an entertainment industry consultant who is chief adviser to the estate of Fred Astaire, the performers tend to win, but they must be willing to put up a fight.

“The film companies, by virtue of the fact that they are controlling the print [of the film], think they can do whatever they want,” said White. “And they continue to do that until the artists assert their rights.”

Link to the rest at PeggyLee.com

Peggy won her case against Disney and received a $3.8 million judgement.


Big Publishing, Contracts

2 Comments to “The Lady and the Lawsuit”

  1. Good for Peggy Lee! You can certainly rest assured that if the situation had been reversed, Disney would not have let go on something like this for love or money.

  2. What Francoise said. Considering how adamant Disney is about asserting its own rights, I am shocked, shocked! to find them infringing on those of others.

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