King of Pop Suing Disney & ABC

Michael Jackson's estate sued ABC and Disney because a two hour documentary on Jackson's last days improperly used his songs, music videos, and movies.

The lawsuit filed alleges that the special illegally uses significant excerpts of his most valuable songs. It also says that ABC used clips in the 2016 Spike Lee directed documentary, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall,” and from the 2009 feature film “Michael Jackson’s This is It.”

It cites Disney's aggressive defense of its own copyrights and its normally narrow view of fair use, the doctrine in copyright law that says short excerpts can be used for news, criticism and research.

Representatives from ABC said that the special was a piece of journalism and that it did not infringe on Jackson's estate rights. Since the special could be regarded as a form of news, they would be entitled to fair use of excerpts of Jackson's work, but the lawsuit says that the documentary did not have any news value and said it is a look back at Jackson's life and entertainment career.

The lawsuit said that warning letters were sent to Disney's attorneys, but they went unanswered.

The documentary focused on Jackson's decline that led up to his death. The King of Pop left behind his mothers and his three children. He died of acute intoxication of propofol, a prescription anesthetic he had been using as a sleeping aid. Jackson's former cardiologist Conrad Murray was convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for giving Jackson a fatal dose of the drug, and served two years in jail.

Comments from Allen:

Last year at a high school reunion, an old high school chum, now a pharmacist, told me he had an interesting experience in Los Angeles, where he practices. A patient was “coding,” which meant he was near death, and this patient had his personal physician with him. Who on earth would be traveling with his personal physician? Yeah, it was Michael Jackson. I asked my pharmaceutical friend if he was the last one to give The Gloved One drugs. He pled the 5th.

Copyright law, of course, protects an artist’s or writer’s ability to profit from his creations. The works are protected for 50 years past death, so Jackson’s heirs should live well for the rest of their lives.

“Fair use” means that another person can use copyrighted material if it only uses a small portion of that material for something like a news broadcast or story or even a song. Whether appropriation of copyrighted material is fair use is a matter of degree. Disney has a valid point here, as does the Jackson estate.

Don’t ask me who is going to win. I think copyright law is a mess, as Led Zeppelin has gotten away with appropriating key potions of other people’s songs without any consequences. “Happy Birthday To You” has now lost its copyright protction because a court has found only one very specific version of that song, which nobody sings, is protected, while Barney the purple dinosaur went to bed without supper for having the audacity to say “I Love Yuo” in a way that violated the copyright for This Old Man.”

I have not seen the Disney documentary. Whether The Mouse wins or loses, I believe, will hinge on whether the movie used very short clips of the King of Pop or more extensive portions. In any event, Disney should never have gone forward with this before negotiating for permission to use the copyrighted material. Disney has the money and a whole battery of copyright lawyers on its payroll, and has no excuse for being in this position.

Allen Browning is an attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho who handles personal injury and criminal defense. He has over 30 years of experience and handled thousands of cases. Allen handles cases from all over Idaho. Call (208) 542-2700 to set up a free consultation if you are facing legal trouble or you have been involved in an accident.
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Allen Browning can help with all personal injury claims including motor vehicle accidents, truck accidents, auto accidents, serious and disabling accidents, and wrongful death claims. 
Allen Browning is an Idaho Falls attorney who can also help with drunk driving (DUI), traffic violations, Felony, Misdemeanor, Domestic Violence, Drug Crimes, Theft, Juvenile Crimes, battery and assault charges, Violent Crimes, and Probation/Parole Violations. He is one of the most experienced and successful criminal defense attorneys in Idaho.

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