The Estate of Michael Jackson filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company and ABC TV, alleging the companies used dozens of copyrights without permission when the TV network aired The Last Days of Michael Jackson last week.
The suit claims the two-hour, unauthorized special – which alleged that Jackson planned his comeback tour to get out of debt and that he regularly took surgery-ready levels of Propofol – used "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and several other songs without permission. It also said that the show used "substantial portions" of Jackson's music videos, footage that the estate owned of the singer's live performances from the Jacksons' "Triumph" tour and other gigs, a clip from a Spike Lee–directed doc and footage from the film Michael Jackson's This Is It.
"Disney and ABC committed willful and intentional copyright infringement when they used the Estate's copyrighted materials without the Estate's permission," Jackson estate attorney Howard Weitzman said in a statement. "Disney's conduct here was particularly surprising given that it has no tolerance for anyone using its copyrighted material in even the most trivial of manners.
"Disney and ABC's conduct is also contrary to law and industry practice, and despite several cautionary letters from the Estate to Disney and ABC attorneys," he continued. "Disney and ABC never sought the Jackson Estate's permission to use any of the material owned by the Estate in the broadcast. Can you imagine using Disney's intellectual property – like Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, Star Wars, The Avengers, Toy Story, and so many other works – without asking Disney's permission or getting a license? The Estate has no choice but to vigorously protect its intellectual property, which is the lifeblood of its business."
“We have not yet had an opportunity to review the complaint," a spokesperson for ABC News tells Rolling Stone. "The ABC News documentary explored the life, career and legacy of Michael Jackson, who remains of great interest to people worldwide, and did not infringe on his estate’s rights.”
In the suit, the estate claims that it only learned about the special two days before it aired. The estate claims it contacted the Walt Disney Company after seeing a trailer with copyrighted images of Jackson. "As a courtesy, we removed a specific image from the promotional material," the company wrote. The estate claims lawyers for the company did not reply to numerous subsequent objections over the film.
Variety reports that The Last Days of Michael Jackson was the most-watched program in the Thursday time slot, attracting 5.6 million viewers. The special contained never-before-seen interviews that Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer conducted with Jackson.
Prior to its airing, the estate issued a statement condemning the doc: "We believe the special to be another crass and unauthorized attempt to exploit the life, music and image of Michael Jackson without respect for Michael's legacy, intellectual property rights or his children."