An explanation of the Netflix v. “Unofficial Bridgerton Musical” case

At the 64th Annual Grammy Awards on April 3, Emily Bear and Abigail Barlow accepted The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’s award for best musical theater album.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello Netflix is suing Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the team behind the Grammy-winning Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, for “blatant infringement of intellectual property rights,” which came as shocking news to aficionados of musical theater and romance novels.

The Julia Quinn book and Netflix series served as the inspiration for The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which debuted on TikTok in early 2021 and was later released as an album in September 2021. Barlow and Bear performed 15 songs on the album. For best musical theater album, the pair took home the 2022 Grammy Award .

Many fans have questions about the lawsuit, the musical’s future, and what it all means in the wake of last week’s revelation.

WHAT ALLEGES THE ACTION? Accusing Barlow and Bear of “stealing significant intellectual property from the Netflix original series Bridgerton to develop an international brand for themselves,” Netflix filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on July 29.

The lawsuit claims that Netflix has the only authority to produce any derivative works based on Bridgerton, including songs and musicals.

Netflix asserts that Barlow and Bear pushed the bounds of fan fiction “far beyond its breaking point” and claimed “carte blanche license to profit from Netflix’s protected intellectual property.”

According to the lawsuit, Barlow and Bear “copied liberally and substantially identically from Bridgerton across a variety of creative components of expression,” including dialogue from the program, “appropriating” characters, and “copying” crucial plot points.

Bridgerton, a Netflix series, has

Reg-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor as its main characters in its first season.

Daniel, Liam / Netflix Netflix denies authorizing The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical or granting Barlow and Bear permission to produce a work based on the franchise, according to the lawsuit.

Barlow and Bear had previously claimed to have Netflix’s approval. Netflix was “extremely, very supportive” of their concept, according to Barlow in an September 2021 interview .

In addition to declining NPR’s request for an interview, Barlow and Bear have not made any public statements regarding the lawsuit.

WHY JUST NOW IS NETFLIX SUING BARLOW AND BEAR? Nearly a year ago, the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical LP was made available. However, the complaint was only filed last week.

According to Derek Miller, an English professor at Harvard University, “the relationship has changed where the value that was accumulating for the Bridgerton brand and Netflix from “the musical” is now surpassed by the money Netflix thinks they’re losing.”

Outside of Netflix’s office building in April in Los Angeles, a billboard promoting the show Bridgerton is seen.

AP Photo by Jae C. The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical Album Live in Concert, a commercial performance at the Kennedy Center on July 26, served as the inspiration for the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, when the concept album was unveiled, Netflix chose not to obstruct “what Barlow and Bear represented as two Bridgerton fans’ expression of their admiration for the series.”

According to Miller, who specializes on the intersections of art and law, the album generated excitement for Netflix without affecting its business model. Netflix sees the musical as a danger to their own live event, “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience” now that Barlow and Bear have started producing for-profit performances.

According to Barlow and Bear, Netflix personnel warned them that they “would not permit and did not want them to partake in any live performances or any derivative works that would compete with Netflix’s own planned live events.”

Netflix “offered Barlow and Bear a license that would allow them to proceed with their scheduled live performances at the Kennedy Center and Royal Albert Hall, continue distribution of their album, and perform their Bridgerton-inspired songs live as part of larger programs going forward,” the lawsuit claims. Barlow and Bear allegedly declined this license.

WHAT COULD THE OUTCOME OF THE CASE BE? According to Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, it is still too early to forecast how the lawsuit will turn out. There are many potential outcomes, but most disputes like this are resolved outside of court.

Professor of literature Miller asserts that Barlow and Bear won’t want to file a lawsuit because there is substantial proof that they violated Netflix’s intellectual property. If the matter is ultimately decided in court, it will depend on whether or not the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical is regarded as fair use.

Fan fiction may be protected by fair use if it “transforms” the original work and gives it new significance. Fan fiction must also be of a noncommercial character and cannot bring its author any financial gain.

According to Tushnet, a number of elements are taken into account in a fair use case, including the intended use, the type of work that was copied, the quantity of original material stolen, and the effect on the market.

There are commercial fair uses, but they are unquestionably riskier and need for more justification, according to Tushnet. “There are many reasons for doing anything, including criticism, commentary, and even creative reworkings that reveal something about the original text. A commercial rewrite is more likely to be judged to be fair usage if it is more critical of the source text.”

WHERE DOES “THE UNOFFICIAL BRIDGERTON MUSICAL” GO FROM HERE? A Bridgerton musical might yet be produced and performed on Broadway, depending on how the issue is resolved.

Netflix may decide to use Barlow and Bear’s work as its theatrical debut if the dispute is resolved amicably. But regardless of the outcome of the litigation, Netflix might decide that they do not want to collaborate with Barlow and Bear in any way.

Many of the allegations stated in the claims, according to Miller, “indicate that there were some major breaches of trust by Barlow and Bear’s agents with Netflix.”

At the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, Abigail Barlow, on the left, and Emily Bear smile while holding The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’s trophy for best musical theater album.

Invision/AP/John Locher/John Locher The show’s premise would need to be drastically changed, and Barlow and Bear would lose the Bridgerton brand that attracted viewers if they attempted to remove intellectual property that belonged to Bridgerton.

According to Tushnet, creative endeavors frequently have second lives. He cites the case Mattel, Inc. v. MCA Records from 2002, in which the toy company lost a legal battle with the band Aqua over the song “Barbie Girl,” but then decided to license the music for use in their own advertising.

WHAT MIGHT THIS IMPLY FOR FAN FICTION AS A WHOLE? Miller asserts that “fan culture is very excellent for brands.” In order to defend their financial and commercial interests while also refraining from “picking conflicts with fans making work that to some extent enhances the value of the brand,” corporations will need to strike a balance.

The lawsuit may have been brought about in part to prevent future prospective fan productions based on Netflix’s huge library.
The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical “may also encourage other third parties to generate derivative works based on Bridgerton without Netflix’s license,” according to the lawsuit.

According to Tushnet, “the typical work of fan fiction does not pull all that much from the current work.” Even if a copyright holder determines a fan fiction work violates their intellectual property rights, they may decide it is just not worthwhile to take legal action.