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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Battle Erupts Over Films on Nonviolence

WASHINGTON (CN) - A scholar who dedicated his life to the field of nonviolent civil resistance faces a court battle with his longtime producing partners over the ownership of 20 years' worth of documentaries.

Peter Ackerman says the conflict arose from his announcement that "he no longer wanted to fund YZI," the production company named for husband-and-wife filmmaking team Steven York and Miriam Zimmerman.

Together since 1996, according to Ackerman's Oct. 14 complaint, the trio first collaborated on a film called "A Force More Powerful," later remade into a PBS television series that covered six cases of nonviolent resistance.

With a doctorate from Tufts University, Ackerman says his seminal work in the field of nonviolent civil resistance fueled "a collaboration that essentially defined YZI's work for nearly twenty years."

In addition to providing content, Ackerman was, according to the complaint, "the primary, if not sole, source of funding and support for defendants."

Over the years, Ackerman says he "spent more than $20.9 million to provide salaries for York and Zimmerman, to pay for their office space, and to cover the costs associated with producing and distributing the documentaries and related materials such as games and study guides."

In 2014, however, Ackerman allegedly advised the couple "to begin budgeting for a gradual phasedown of Ackerman's financial support that was planned to terminate in mid-2016."

The complaint suggests that the couple instead maneuvered for a "golden parachute."

"Specifically, on February 16, 2016, Defendants declared themselves sole owners of all rights in the documentary films and related materials, and insisted that Plaintiffs would need to receive a license from Defendants even to use the films and to pay a 'licensing fee' to Defendant YZI," the complaint states.

Ackerman, a resident of Washington, D.C., filed his suit alongside the nonprofit he founded, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Without access to the master copies of past documentaries, Ackerman says he will be unable to convert the films from hard-copy DVD to a version that can be streamed online or to translate them into other languages, according to the complaint.

This is nonnegotiable in the still-evolving digital age, according to the complaint.

"Because demand for DVD versions is rapidly being replaced by demand for online versions, which are more readily distributed to the far-flung audience being targeted by ICNC, Defendants' refusal to provide access directly threatens ICNC's ability to fulfill a significant part of its mission," the complaint states.

Ackerman says none of the films would have been possible without his support.

"The parties mutually intended and understood that a central and material element of this collaboration was that Ackerman, as co-owner, would be able to use and distribute the documentary films and related materials worldwide in support of ICNC's mission, without limitation," the complaint reads.

Ackerman wants a federal judge in Washington to declare him a joint owner of the films. He also charges York and Zimmerman with fraud and claims they should return the $20.9 million he put into their films over the years.

York Zimmerman Inc. declined to comment on the case. Court records show the company has not yet been served in the case.

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