Lawsuits over Lennon Footage

A copyright battle goes to court in Boston Wednesday between Yoko Ono and the producers of an unreleased documentary.

At issue? 24 grainy video tapes, shot in 1970, featuring John Lennon at home with his wife, Ono. Right now, she's also suing the makers of a different documentary called, 'Expelled.'

WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on both lawsuits, and the question of who owns an icon's legacy.

Audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site later today.


ANDREA SHEA: There was a time when Yoko Ono and John Lennon made public art out of their private lives. The image of the couple in bed together...her dressed in black, him naked and curled up tight against her iconic. The rarely seen hand-held video footage that's driving the lawsuit in Boston isn't nearly as provocative, according to rock critic Tim Riley. He's working on a biography of Lennon and is one of the few people who've seen the video in question.

TIM RILEY: It's very simple, hanging out, watching TV, smoking a joint, listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, talking about the events of the day. This is literally Tony Cox holding a camera and just following them around.

SHEA: Tony Cox is Yoko Ono's ex-husband. They divorced in '69. A year later Cox shot this video of Ono with her new man, John Lennon. Over time who owns the copyright has been disputed. Forgery, fraud and thievery are being alleged. Long story short, the legal wheels started turning three years ago when Ono caught wind of an unfinished documentary titled 'Three Days in the Life' that features the footage. Now its makers are suing Ono for ownership. Her lawyers wouldn't talk on tape for this story, but the filmmakers' attorney Joseph Doyle says what his clients want is simple.

JOSEPH DOYLE: The right to show this film to exhibit it, to use it commercially, it's what were told extremely valuable, so that's really what's at stake here.

RILEY: The thing about it is it's really kind of boring.

SHEA: That's Lennon biographer Tim Riley again. He says watching Ono and Lennon smoking pot...or even talking candidly about his heroin addiction...isn't new. Hard-core fanatics might be tickled by the home-grown look and feel of the footage, but Riley questions its commercial viability. He's also not surprised Ono wants control. And he completely understands the widow's other current lawsuit against the makers of the documentary, 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.' In it filmmakers use Lennon's song 'Imagine' to make their own points about evolution and intelligent design. Riley says it's Yoko Ono's job to protect the John Lennon brand.


RILEY: He made her the guardian of his estate and so why shouldn't she block something that she thinks is sub-par or not up to snuff or doesn't fit into her plan of how the estate should be handled. That's her call.

SHEA: And, Riley says, despite common perception, Ono is not really lawsuit happy.

RILEY: I don't get the feeling that she wakes up in the morning and decides to file a dozen lawsuits because she feels paranoid and everyone is after her and making money off her. I think she really is protecting the brand.

SHEA: The John Lennon brand can be seen on crib sheets and nursery lamp shades. As for the disputed footage in question in is the first hearing with the Federal it will be some time before the rest of us have an opportunity to see it for ourselves.

For WBUR, I'm Andrea Shea.


This program aired on April 30, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live