‘Jersey Boys’ Trial Starts With War Over Words

     RENO, Nev. (CN) — A lawyer defending former members of the Four Seasons singing group and other creators of the hit musical “Jersey Boys” in a copyright-infringement suit advised jurors that words such as “cool” can’t be owned and cautioned them not to get caught up in the opposition’s sideshows.
     Meanwhile, the attorney for a woman who filed the suit gave the jury a chronology of events leading to the success of the Broadway musical about the Four Seasons. That success, he said, can be traced to an unpublished book at the heart of the copyright dispute that provided a “eureka” moment for the musical’s writers — a compelling story that the play lacked.
     The attorneys, David Korzenik for the defendants and Gregory Guillot for the plaintiff, spent about 2 ½ hours on Tuesday giving opening statements to the jury of six men and three women as the “Jersey Boys” copyright trial got underway in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Robert Jones. The trial is expected to last several weeks and caps nearly nine years of legal maneuvering.
     Guillot represents Donna Corbello, the widow of Rex Woodard, a Texas lawyer and a devoted Four Seasons fan who in 1988 entered into an agreement with Tommy DeVito to write an autobiography of DeVito’s life as a founding member of the Four Seasons, which had several hit songs in the 1960s. Woodard’s book was finished in 1990, but he died of cancer the following year and the book was never published.
     DeVito registered the book with the U.S. Copyright Office under his name four months before Woodard died, but Corbello didn’t discover this until 2006, according to court documents. At the time, she and her sister-in-law were seeking to get the book published on the heels of the success of “Jersey Boys,” which debuted on Broadway in 2005 and won four 2006 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
     Corbello then had her late husband added as a co-author of the book in the copyright registration.
     Corbello filed the copyright-infringement suit in 2007, claiming that the musical is at least partly derived from the book.
     In addition to DeVito, the suit eventually named as defendants the writers, director and producers of “Jersey Boys,” as well as former Four Seasons members Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio.
     In his opening statement, Guillot said the case against DeVito has been settled. He did not provide details.
     Guillot told jurors that the defendants used Woodard’s unpublished book to “create a story that had eluded them for years” while they tried to create a musical based on the Four Seasons. The evidence, he said, will show that they “struggled to find the right story to bring to the stage until they got their hands on Woodard’s unpublished work,” which he called a “eureka moment.”
     He urged jurors to “listen and watch the evidence of the importance of the story to the play” as well as the importance of the DeVito character.
     The writers and director of “Jersey Boys” were “juiced about their contacts with DeVito,” he said.
     “You will see direct copying from the book,” Guillot told jurors, adding that a big chunk of the play used events selected by the book’s writer.
     Guillot also told the jury that the defendants’ story continues to change, from outright denial to saying they used the book only for research and finally saying they copied only unprotected facts.
     In his opening, Korzenik said the bulk of the examples of verbatim copying cited by the plaintiff are single words or two-word phrases, including “cool” and “social movement,” that can’t be owned.
     The defendants’ attorney told jurors they have all they need to decide the case by comparing the manuscript of the book with the musical. Jurors watched a videotape of the musical on the first day of the trial before listening to opening statements.
     “If it’s not in the final (the play), it’s not in the case,” Korzenik said on several occasions, contending that nothing in the musical is highly similar to the book.
     “All of their (plaintiff’s) other stories are sideshows,” he said.
     Korzenik took issue with Guillot’s statements that the book came first and the play had nothing going for it before then, calling it backwards. The musical, he said, was “greenlighted way before this biography got into anybody’s hands,” with writers using other sources for material.
     Korzenik also stressed that actual events, real people, places and facts can’t be protected by copyright.
     “Things that happen” can’t be owned, he said. “These things happened to the very people being sued.”
     Members of the Four Seasons “remember what happened to them,” Korzenik said. Of DeVito, he said, “We forgot all about that guy? That’s what they want you to think.”
     Before the opening statements, the judge advised jurors that a historical work has “thin” copyright protection, requiring them to find substantial similarities.