Jury Says “Jersey Boys” Ripped Off Content From an Autobiography

jersey boys copyright infringementThe Four Seasons was arguably one of the most iconic doo-wop groups the music industry ever saw. According to Rolling Stone, the group sold more than 100 million records worldwide, headed by lead singer Frankie Vallie, known for his three-octave range and falsetto.

The group’s story is quite interesting. So much so that a couple of writers and a director went so far as to create a play, “Jersey Boys” based on the band’s story. However, those creatives recently lost a major lawsuit regarding the production.

Jury holds “Jersey Boys” creators liable

After legal wrangling that’s been going on since the mid-2000s, a federal jury in Nevada found that “Jersey Boys” director Des McAnuff and writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, had infringed on the copyright of an unpublished autobiographical work about Thomas DeVito, according to Forbes. DeVito, who was one of the original members of The Four Seasons, had contracted a writer by the name of Rex Woodard to ghostwrite the member’s autobiography. However, due to the writer’s death, the autobiography was never published. 

Around 2000, Nicholas Macioci, another member of The Four Seasons, and DeVito granted exclusive rights to their fellow performers Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio to reference aspects of the former musicians’ lives to develop a play about the group. Woodard’s widow, Donna Corbello, after recognizing the impending success “Jersey Boys” would have on Broadway, made an effort to publish the DeVito autobiography.

However, DeVito told Corbello that such an effort would not be possible. The Hollywood Reporter noted Corbello amended copyright records and filed a suit against the “Jersey Boy producers, asserting that the stage production used work within the autobiography. The amendments listed DeVito and Woodard as co-authors of the unpublished book. Therefore, she deserved a share of the profits from the play.

Contracting Woodard 

Forbes acknowledged one of the more contentious points of the case. The plaintiff maintained that DeVito, having only an eighth-grade education, relied heavily on Woodard to write his biography. Therefore, Corbello asserted that her late husband was not just a “scribe” but a key professional who made the manuscript possible. What complicated the matter was that DeVito registered the work – titled “Tommy DeVito – Then and Now” as his own piece in January 1991.

When it came to producing “Jersey Boys” McAnuff suggested that Elice and Brickman had used parts of DeVito’s manuscript.

“Rick and Marshall had a couple of sequences in their treatment that were clearly inspired by [DeVito’s] autobiography,” said McAnuff, as quoted by Forbes. 

At the end of the day, Corbello won the case. The court didn’t specify how much compensation she would receive. Overall, the case is a demonstration of just how complex copyright law can get, especially when multiple works are involved.

Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Anthony Caruso, at 201-806-3364.

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Anthony R. Caruso is a business transactional attorney in New York and New Jersey with experience in structuring, negotiation and completion of legal deals involving business, entrepreneurs, athletes and performers.

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