Unsurprisingly, we’re not legal experts here at WhatsOnStage (“WhatsInCourt” isn’t that fun). But the relatively surprising news that Netflix has decided to sue the creators of the chart Unofficial Bridgerton Musical Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear’s live performances of their show caught our attention.
It feels like a long time coming. The musical’s award-winning success in album form and a concert on July 26 at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC gave the production a major boost, which was sure to upset some in the Netflix camp.
Since the streaming giant owns the rights to the material, does that mean there will be curtains for Barlow and Bear? Will the fire have to be put out in “Burn For You”? The answer may not be as obvious as it seems at first glance.
Reading through the 25-page complaint filed by Netflix last weekend revealed a collection of complaints. For a relatively long section, Netflix lawyers reviewed Barlow and Bear’s lyrics, noting with almost clinical nitpicking whenever one of the lines echoed dialogue from the hit Regency-era romantic adventure. You can almost imagine a brave young man at the law firm having to sit there on Spotify while he watches. Bridgerton episodes at 2x speed. The complaint also cited interviews with Barlow and Bear where the pair noted that the television show was their main point of inspiration.
The night at the Kennedy Center last month brought some additional problems. Says Netflix: “The live show featured more than a dozen songs that copied verbatim the characters’ dialogue, traits and expression, and other elements of Bridgerton the series. It included dramatic performances of Bridgerton characters of Broadway actors, moving through the interpretation of the songs that make up the ‘musical'”.
Netflix has also said that the couple has scammed the Bridgerton logo: using a screenshot of the Royal Albert Hall booking page, where the title of the show is presented in capital letters. Notably, everywhere else Barlow and Bear have deliberately used a different font to differentiate the musical from the stage play.
Intellectual property law is notoriously complex (which is why entire firms are dedicated to this field), but Netflix doesn’t mince words in expressing its frustration with the pair’s efforts. The streamer’s attorneys explained: “Defendants Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear and their companies (“Barlow and Bear”) have taken valuable intellectual property from the Netflix original series. Bridgerton to build an international brand for themselves. Bridgerton reflects the creative work and hard-earned success of hundreds of artists and Netflix employees. Netflix owns the exclusive right to create Bridgerton songs, musicals, or any other derivative works based on Bridgerton. Barlow and Bear cannot take that right, made valuable by the hard work of others, for themselves, without permission. Yet that is exactly what they have done.”
It’s interesting that, despite their initial praise for the musical, both executive producer Shonda Rhimes and Bridgerton Novelist Julia Quinn has submitted testimony as part of the lawsuit, with Quinn stating, “There is a difference… between composing on TikTok and recording and performing for commercial purposes. I hope that Barlow and Bear, who share my position as freelance creative professionals , I understand the need to protect the intellectual property of other professionals, including the characters and stories I created in the Bridgerton novels from over 20 years ago”.
It’s hard to deny that Quinn is right. If she went out today and decided to ride a squid game musical at a venue in London, replicating key meme-worthy moments from the show (there would be a song called “Red Light, Green Light” and the choreography would be awesome), he’d probably get an angry letter for part of the weekend.
But the key counterargument is that the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which directly states that it is not associated with the TV series, is merely a work of fan fiction, rather than an attempt to directly rip off the show. That would mean it’s licensed under fair use, regardless of Netflix’s permission. It all started with Barlow just singing a few songs on TikTok. Existing IP-based musicals are multiple. Remember when, for example, A very pottery musical was made, mixing elements of that Magical World. Friendly, stranger sings, Thrones! The musical and more have benefited from existing fictional universes. .
The key here, however, is that those shows borrowed elements from their source material, while the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical it’s a beat-for-beat imitation of the TV series and the books (as Quinn acknowledges in his statement), with characters, plot points, and story arcs all drawn from existing work.
In IP law, fan fiction must be “transformative”, in the form A very pottery musical it is. Transformative work is less likely to pose a market threat to television series. Let’s say, therefore, that I decided to create a musical called Schwidgertonwhere the inimitable David Schwimmer travels back in time and finds himself searching for love among England’s aristocracy, I could probably get away with it.
The work also cannot be commercial in nature. This last point means that if the couple had decided to put on the musical in concert for charity, this lawsuit would probably go away.
Other social media users have asked “why now?” (one year after the album’s digital release) rather than earlier in the development of the musical. It seems that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the decision to mount the show live: according to the complaint, that had never been part of the understanding between the parties and, even when the concerts were announced, Netflix did not. he instantly tried to shut them down, but instead tried to strike a deal: the company says his offers were rejected.
What is most notable to read is that the streaming platform is said to have “offered Barlow and Bear a license that would allow them to continue their scheduled live performances at the Kennedy Center (which took place on July 26) and Royal Albert Hall, continue to distribute his album, and perform his Bridgerton-inspired songs live as part of larger shows in the future.” It’s unclear why exactly the pair turned this down.
Another problem is that Netflix decides to host its own “Bridgerton Experience,” a deep dive into Quinn’s world. The presence of musical concert productions, they argue, “threatens their plans,” and that the immersive Washington production “Bridgerton Experience” had been hurt by the Kennedy Center concert.
In addition, Netflix alleges that the theatrical production has sold merchandise with the Bridgerton logo. While most of this merch expressly stated “The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical,” which may be more palatable since it echoes directly from the album (which Netflix had allowed), the sticking point was a vinyl record keychain, with two words, “Bridgerton Musical”. ” (in all caps), printed on it. The omission of the “unofficial” part may have crossed a line.
Why, furthermore, did the BBC Orchestra decide that supporting RAH’s performance was a good idea?
That said, a case from the UK in 2003 said that the sale of unofficial Arsenal Football Club merchandise by a street vendor amounted to trademark infringement, even when it bore the word ‘unofficial’. Obviously this is a US case, but an interesting comparison.
Barlow and Bear have been silent on social media since the lawsuit hit the headlines, and it will be interesting to see how those surveyed react. The musical is still scheduled to play at the Royal Albert Hall next month, with tickets on sale, and apparently selling handsomely based on the seating plan.
In the meantime, there are a few more questions to ask: what form of licensing deal did Netflix suggest to the duo? Why didn’t they want to accept the offer, even though it’s probably the best way to safeguard their material? Why, furthermore, did the BBC Orchestra decide that supporting RAH’s performance was a good idea? Is it a bit strange that one TV giant basically endorses another’s possible copyright infringement?
Many legal experts say this is likely to be settled out of court. There’s also a funny callback to Aqua’s song “Barbie Girl”, in which Mattel took the group to court (who lost and later decided to use the song for their own promotions). Humble readers, we will have to wait and see.