Big girls may not cry, but the creative team behind the smash Broadway musical Jersey Boys might be doing just that. On November 28, a jury in Nevada federal court found that the musical’s creators were guilty of copyright infringement—to the tune of 10% of the show’s profits.
Jersey Boys centers around the life and times of 1960s doo-wop group The Four Seasons. After retirement, Tommy DeVito, who was a founding member of the band, began work on an autobiography with the help of a ghostwriter (also known as an “uncredited co-author”) named Rex Woodward. After Woodward succumbed to lung cancer in 1991, DeVito changed his tune about who had written the unfinished book, claiming that he alone authored it. Further, he gave permission for it to be used as the basis for the musical that would become Jersey Boys.
That didn’t sit well with Woodward’s widow, Donna Corbello, who contended that DeVito wrote none of the unpublished autobiography. She alleged that her husband produced it from interviews with DeVito, not a collaboration, and that DeVito certainly did not author it on his own.
I found this case interesting because here we have an author (once removed, via the author’s widow) successfully claiming that his literary rendition of a person’s life is protectable by copyright — despite the subject of the autobiography giving permission to use his own life story as part of the musical.
The key thing about this case is the fact that Woodward conducted interviews, and created a written narrative. If something has been written down, it belongs to the author. The facts surrounding the life of Tommy DeVito are probably not subject to copyright protection (as copyright does not protect ideas or facts), but the way in which facts or ideas are expressed can be protected. It seems the jury found that not merely the facts of DeVito’s life, but the ways those facts were expressed, were substantially similar to the unpublished work. The author, or his heir (the widow — often, a sympathetic plaintiff), was entitled to compensation from DeVito for that work — even though DeVito had actually LIVED his own life story.
The moral to this story is that if you or someone you know is the subject of a book, an article or some other means of telling a story, re-telling what was discussed may infringe on the author’s copyright if the re-telling is sufficiently similar to the narrative that the writer created. And this holds true for either a ghostwriter or someone who is actually credited — unless you have an express contract, giving the rights in the work to the party who hires the writer. Another fine reason to put it in writing.