Case Name: Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Artimus Pyle – Second Circuit
Date of Opinion: October 10, 2018
Opinion by: Per Curiam; Judge Newman & Judge Hall (concurring)
Defendant-Appellants appeal a permanent injunction decree issued by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York that prohibited the release and distribution of a film surrounding the plane crash of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd band was founded in the 1960s by Ronnie Van Zant (“Ronnie”), Gary R. Rossington, and Allen Collins. In 1975, Artimus Pyle joined the band as a drummer. On October 20, 1977, the band was in a plane crash that killed lead singer, Ronnie, and several other members. Pyle, Rossington, and Collins survived the crash. Following the tragic crash, Ronnie’s widow, Judith and the surviving members entered into an oath, in which they agreed to never use the Lynyrd Skynyrd name ever again. For a period of ten years, the promise was honored. However, in 1987, the surviving band members embarked on a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute tour. Judith took issue with the use of the band’s name and sued the members in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. At the conclusion of that suit, the district court issued a Consent Order limiting the members’ ability to use the band’s name and the biographical material of Ronnie, while allowing the surviving members “to exploit their life stories and portray their experiences with the band in movies.” That Consent Order is the basis for this present appeal.
Thereafter, in 2016, Pyle agreed with Cleopatra Records, Inc. to film a movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the events surrounding the 1977 plane crash. The contract provided that the story would be told “’through the recollections and experiences of Pyle.’” When plaintiffs, former band members and their trustees and representatives, learned of the film via press release, they sent a cease and desist letter to Cleopatra Records, Inc. Cleopatra Records, Inc. responded, asserting that it had no agreement with the plaintiffs and that it had a First Amendment right to produce and distribute the movie, and moved forward with the movie production. Plaintiffs sought judicial redress in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. After reviewing the final script, the district court ultimately concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to a permanent injunction prohibiting the distribution of the film and other related activities. The defendants appealed this decision,
On appeal, by per curium opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and vacated the injunction. The court acknowledged that this case did not involve a classic First Amendment violation involving an unlawful prior restraint by a government entity, but found that it nevertheless was a case implicating free speech concerns. The court explained that, although the injunction imposed here is allegedly a result of private contract, “it nonetheless restrains the viewing of an expressive work prior to its public availability, and courts should always be hesitant to approve such an injunction.” Moreover, the Second Circuit reasoned that, while parties are free to limit by contract publication rights, an injunction may only restrict the parties to that contract or entities that act “in active concert or participation” with anyone bound by the injunction.
Emphasizing the serious concerns that arise from imposing an injunction on an entity that contracts with someone arguably bound by the terms of an injunction, the court went on to carefully examine whether the terms of the Consent Order were violated. On such examination, the per curium court concluded that the terms in the Consent Order were inconsistent, or at least insufficiently specific, and therefore unenforceable because it permits what it also appears to prohibit. Specifically, while the Order permits Pyle to make a movie in which he describes his experiences with Lynyrd Skynyrd, it contradictorily prohibits him from making a movie that is a history of the band. The scripted movie tells the story of the plane crash in which Ronnie and other members died and from which Pyle walked away. Finding, in essence, that Pyle’s experiences with the band are part of the band’s history, the court concluded that, “provisions of a consent decree that both prohibit a movie about such a history and also permit a movie about such an experience are sufficiently inconsistent, or at least insufficiently specific, to support an injunction.”
In a concurring opinion joined by Judge Hall, Judge Newman writes that, in addition to the reasons stated in the per curium opinion, the injunction should also be vacated because the movie complies with the express terms of the Consent Decree which permit Pyle to “’describe and portray his experiences with Lynyrd Skynyrd.’”
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Summary by: Patricia Petrosky