Jersey Boys, the hit musical based on the meteoric career of the rock group The Four Seasons, was the target of a lawsuit brought in 2007 by Donna Corbello, widow of Rex Woodard, who ghost-wrote a biography of Tommy DeVito, founder and lead guitarist of the Four Seasons during their golden years, 1960-71. When Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in 2005, the DeVito bio was still unpublished. Following Woodward’s death in 1991, Corbello and Woodward’s sister, and later DeVito himself, worked to find a publisher for the book. In the course of these efforts, DeVito registered the copyright in the unpublished book in his own name, and shared a copy of the manuscript with the writers of Jersey Boys. Corbello subsequently won recognition for her husband as author of the book, and pursued her claim that Jersey Boys infringed her husband’s copyright in the unpublished book.
You’d expect this to be a fair-use case, since nonfiction works—such as news stories and historical and biographical books—enjoy less protection against third-party use than do fictional and imaginative works. In fact, copyright law is quite clear that it does not protect facts, only the specific original expression of those facts. So you can freely use a fact already reported by someone else, but you cannot reuse the exact words of the previous writer—except of course in short quotations. Thus the case might have turned on how much of Woodard’s original expression found its way into Jersey Boys and whether that constituted fair use. But no. Continue Reading