The Beatles were awarded $10.5 million in Los Angeles yesterday when Superior Court Judge Paul Breckenridge ordered producers of the "Beatlemania" stage show and film to pay that sum to Apple Corps Ltd., ruling that "Beatlemania's" primary purpose was to commercially exploit the Beatles' popularity.
Besides the monetary judgment, Breckenridge's 10-page decision said that Apple, the Beatles' London-based record and holding company, was entitled to a court order barring the further use or exploitation of the group without its consent. The three surviving Beatles and the estate of John Lennon are equal partners in Apple.
"Beatlemania," a stage show in which four Beatle look-alikes performed the group's most famous songs against a backdrop of films and slides depicting the '60s, has grossed about $45 million since it was first produced in 1978.
Breckenridge ordered "Beatlemania" creator Steven Leber (along with his partners and various production companies) to pay Apple $5.6 million plus 7 percent interest from September 1979, when Apple filed its lawsuit.
Ely Landau and the This Is The Week That Was Beatlemania Co., which produced the "Beatlemania" film, were ordered to pay Apple $2 million plus 7 percent interest from January 1981, when the film was released.
The judge found that the defendants' actions "amounted to virtually a complete appropriation of the Beatles' persona" without permission, violating Apple's publicity and trademark rights and its right to protect the group's reputation (Apple contended that the imitation was vastly inferior to the Beatles' live performances and confused and deceived the public by claiming to replicate those performances). Leber's partner David Krebs, reached in New York, declined comment on the decision.
Ironically, in a deposition for the lawsuit taken just 10 days before his murder in New York City in 1980, John Lennon indicated that despite the group's long-term public stance to the contrary, the Beatles had planned on getting back together for a reunion concert. The reunion was to cap a historical film, "The Long and Winding Road."
"We all know how to end it," Lennon said. "Beatles performing and singing to round off a film of the Beatles singing throughout their career, similar to the way 'Let It Be' ended."
"The Long and Winding Road" was to have been the Beatles' own film about their lives and careers; it had been assembled but was never given a final editing. The group apparently had planned to release it in the mid-'80s.
In the deposition, Lennon also said that he and Paul McCartney had been watching "Saturday Night Live" in the late '70s when that show's producer, Lorne Michaels, offered them $3,000 for a reunion appearance (they had previously been offered $50 million). The two ex-Beatles almost took him up on it, but it was late at night, they were tired, and George Harrison and Ringo Starr weren't in the country. So much for near-history.
Apple attorney Bertram Fields called yesterday's ruling a far-reaching victory for entertainers who do not want to be imitated without their consent. "It also raised the issue: To what extent is imitation protected by the First Amendment?" Fields said. "If it's protected, what are the limits on protection? The court ruled there are indeed limitations on the ability to imitate a professional entertainer, that you're taking a right of value from that entertainer analogous to copyright."
Fields added that the "fair use" exception to the copyright -- "where you can take a limited sample to show what a writer is like, or in this case what an entertainer is like, for the purpose of satire, biography or history -- would be permitted, but that a wholesale appropriation, an entire evening of imitation Beatles or Frank Sinatra, is no more protected than printing an entire volume of Ernest Hemingway."
The court ruling, Fields said, protected comedians like Rich Little, whose act is built on imitations.
Joel Smith, lawyer for the defendants, said that the "Beatlemania" producers had only been "exercising their First Amendment freedoms." Breckenridge's decision, Smith said, "is not particularly comprehensive. It sets out more the judge's conclusions. We will ask him to tell us in a little more detail what facts he bases those conclusions on and what legal principles he is applying. We believe the judge has committed error, and will in all probability appeal."
The decision, he said, came "nine years after the fact, 3,000 miles away from where the show opened and was based in large part, we believe, on the decisions of various courts that were rendered in the last nine years."
Smith also pointed to the proliferation of "tribute" acts currently working, ranging from a number of Elvis Presley imitators to "The Concert That Never Was" (a touring show featuring tribute bands imitating the Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix) to a current Los Angeles show, "The Unauthorized Sinatra."
"It is an art form that seems to be out in the cultural arena," Smith said. "This decision obviously has wide-ranging impact."
In his decision, Breckenridge disagreed with Smith's argument that both the stage revue and film were protected under the Constitution because they contained a political message and were newsworthy.