Lynyrd Skynyrd Movie Ban Lifted Over Unclear Rights Agreement

A company can make a movie about a Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer because of ambiguity in a right-of-publicity agreement that allowed band members to sell their own stories but not the band’s, a federal appeals court said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Oct. 10 that Cleopatra Records Inc. can resume production of a movie based on the life of Artimus Pyle, including his membership in the band and survival of a 1977 plane crash that killed some other band members.

The decision highlights the importance of clarity in right-of-publicity agreements. The appeals court held the terms of the pact unenforceable by injunction since they were “inconsistent, or at least insufficiently specific.”

The ruling lifts an injunction by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which had said Pyle’s participation in the project violated a 1988 agreement with the wife of late singer Ronnie Van Zant on surviving band members’ rights to the band’s name and history.

Van Zant’s widow and two other surviving members of the band entered a “blood oath” after the Mississippi plane crash, promising to never use the band’s name again, according to the court’s opinion. She sued after the surviving members embarked on a 1987 tribute tour under the Lynyrd Skynyrd name, resulting in the settlement agreement.

Mixed Signals

The band members learned about Pyle’s participation in Cleopatra Records’ movie in 2016 and sent a cease-and-desist letter. By the time they sued Pyle and the filmmakers, principal photography was nearly complete and Cleopatra had spent roughly $1.2 million, according to the Second Circuit ruling.

The agreement restricts use of the band’s history and its name by the surviving members, but allows members to exploit their own life stories, including references to the band.

The Second Circuit said the lower court erred in enforcing the agreement by injunction because the consent order’s terms “permit what they also appear to prohibit.”

“That crash is part of the ‘history’ of the band, but it is also an ‘experience’ of Pyle with the band, likely his most important experience,” the court said.

In a separate concurring opinion, two of the three judges went further and said the agreement specifically permitted the movie. That opinion noted that the vast majority of the 108-page script focused specifically on Pyle’s life. Telling Pyle’s story without reference to the band, particularly the life-altering element of the plane crash, “would have been impossible,” the opinion said. It added that terms of the agreement “explicitly permits” such references.

Judges Jon O. Newman, Peter W. Hall and Susan L. Carney heard the case and issued a per curium opinion. Judge Newman wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Judge Hall.

Mandel Bhandari LLP represented Cleopatra. Otterbourg PC represented Ronnie Van Zant Inc., Gary R. Rossington, Johnny Van Zant, Barbara Houston, Alicia Rapp, and Corinna Gaines Biemiller.

The case is Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Cleopatra Records, Inc., 2018 BL 372705, 2d Cir., No. 17-2849, 10/10/18

To contact the reporter on this story: Kyle Jahner in Washington at kjahner@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloomberglaw.com