LOS ANGELES (CN) - Sony and Apple Corps conspired to block a documentary with public domain footage of The Beatles' first concert in the U.S., a distributor claims in a federal antitrust complaint.
Ace Arts also claims Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Apple Corps tortiously interfered and compete unfairly.
Sony/ATV is a music publishing partnership between Sony and Michael Jackson's estate, which owns rights to the Beatles catalog.
Ace claims it has the right to distribute the documentary, "The Beatles: The Lost Concert."
The Beatles sang eight of their own songs and four others on Feb. 11, 1964 at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C. All of the 35-minute tape is included in the finished documentary.
The complaint claims that National General, the original owner of the only recording of the concert, went out of business after its successor, American Financial, liquidated its assets in 1974 and 1975.
Ace says in the complaint that around that time the master tape was "sold without copyright protection," and "became immediately and permanently dedicated to the public domain."
The buyer was Malcolm Klein, according to the complaint.
Klein supposedly sold a copy of the tape in 1987 to James Karnbach, and he transferred the tape to the documentary producers more than 20 years later, according to the complaint.
In 1995, Klein had sold the original master to Apple Corps, Ace claims.
It claims that footage of the concert has been exploited multiple times on video formats and in other releases. No one ever claimed to own the copyright to the concert tape before, Ace says.
Ace claims it entered into a deal with Screenvision Exhibition to screen "The Beatles: The Lost Concert" in 500 theaters nationwide.
The New York premiere of the film was slated for Spring 2012, until Sony/ATV and Apple Corps interfered, the complaint states.
"At the eleventh hour, in mid-April 2012, Sony/ATV, at the insistence of, and in conspiracy with, Apple Corps, wrongfully interfered with the distribution contract by making false statements to exhibitors, theater owners, and potential distributors concerning Ace's legal right to exhibit the documentary, making unjustified threats of legal action, and filing a baseless lawsuit in England," the complaint states
In a footnote, Ace says that Apple Corps "has never claimed copyright in the original footage - only in its original contributions to productions that also incorporated the original footage from the tape."
Before its threat of legal action, Sony/ATV had entered into negotiations with the filmmakers for royalties and synchronization licenses to the songs featured in the film, Ace says.
But negotiations were cut short, Ace says, when Sony/ATV got wind that Apple was planning to use the footage for its own film.
Sony/ATV then took the "highly unusual" step of granting exclusive synchronization licenses to Apple Corps, Ace says.
Apple Corps used part of the concert footage, which was made available to fans who bought The Beatles Anthology compilation at the iTunes store, the lawsuit states.
Due to the threat of a lawsuit, Screenvision declined to release the film, Ace says, leading to Ace's "financial ruination."
Ace claims the film could have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
Ace claims that "The Beatles: The Lost Concert" transforms the original work - a common claim in copyright cases.
"The documentary is an extended illustration of an important historical-cultural event, which the documentary as a whole is designed to explore and explicate. The documentary's narration and the interpolated on-screen comments of cultural critics, musicians, and fans place the copyrighted music in a new context and thus constitutes a transformative creation," the complaint states.
Ace seeks an injunction, court costs and damages for violations of the Sherman Act, copyright misuse, tortious interference with contract, interference with prospective economic relations, and unfair competition.
It is represented by Lee Squitieri with Squitieri & Fearon of New York City.
Neither Apple Corps nor Sony/ATV could immediately be reached for comment after business hours Thursday.