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Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Artimus Pyle

Following bench trial, district court grants permanent injunction enjoining film company from producing and distributing movie about rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, ruling that film company was barred from doing so by long-standing consent order to which it was not party.

Plaintiffs Ronnie Van Zant, Inc., Gary R. Rossington, Johnny Van Zant, Barbara Houston, as the Trustee of the Allen Collins Trust, and Alicia Rapp and Carinna Gaines Biemiller, as the personal representatives of the estate of Steven Gaines, sued former band member Artimus Pyle, Cleopatra Films and Cleopatra Records, seeking to enjoin them from producing and distributing a movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the 1977 plane crash that ended the lives of band members Ronnie Van Zant and Steven Gaines.

The basis of the lawsuit was a 1988 consent order that resolved a dispute between Van Zant’s widow, Judy Van Zant Jenness, and the other surviving band members, Rossington, Collins and, critically, Pyle, following efforts by the surviving band members to mount a tribute tour over Jenness’ objections. The consent order set forth a number of restrictions regarding how the parties to the 1988 dispute could use the name Lynyrd Skynyrd and name and likeness rights of Van Zant and Gaines. Among the restrictions was a requirement that there could be no exploitation of the history of the band without the prior written approval of Rossington, Collins and Van Zant’s estate. The consent order’s terms applied to third parties acting “in concert or participating with” the signatories.

Upon learning that Pyle was working on a film project with Cleopatra about Lynyrd Skynyrd, plaintiffs sent Cleopatra a cease and desist letter in July 2016, notifying Cleopatra of the various restrictions on Pyle contained in the consent crder. Cleopatra asserted its First Amendment rights to continue with the project, and continued production with the involvement of Pyle in its development. After Variety released an article detailing the project in April 2017, plaintiffs initiated the action for a permanent injunction. After initially denying plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order, the court held a two-day bench trial in July 2017.

Following trial, the court found that the film Cleopatra was producing with Pyle’s participation “is, overall, a film about Lynyrd Skynyrd” that fell within the consent order’s prohibitions. The court thus ruled that Pyle was barred by the consent order from participating in the film’s production, rejecting defendants’ argument that Pyle’s notation on the consent order that he was signing “Under Protest” rendered it nonconsensual and thus nonbinding.

The court further ruled that Cleopatra, a nonparty to the consent order, was bound by the order based on the participation of Kyle. The court explained that its power to enforce consent orders derived from the All Writs Act, which empowered the court, as with injunctions, “to enjoin [nonparties] from acts that would frustrate the consent decree’s operation on parties that are bound to the decree.” Because Pyle was in violation of the consent order, and Cleopatra was acting in concert with him, an injunction against Cleopatra was “essential to the implementation of that order.” The court explained that such enforcement required that Cleopatra “had knowledge of the consent order,” which the court found it did because it continued working with Pyle on the film after plaintiffs advised Cleopatra of the consent order’s prohibitions.

The court rejected defendants’ defenses of laches, unclean hands and First Amendment rights. With respect to the laches defense, the court found any delay in seeking to halt the film’s production was not unreasonable and that there was no significant financial prejudice from any delay, because the bulk of Cleopatra’s expenditures on the film came after it learned of the consent order. With respect to unclean hands, the court ruled that plaintiffs’ own prior modifications of the Consent Decree could not be relied upon to excuse defendants’ actions, as those other “violations” — which included “narrowly-tailored and reasonable” modifications to the consent order — did not rise to the level of “unconscionable” action so as to foreclose equitable relief.

With respect to the First Amendment defense, defendants argued that enforcement of the consent order against them would constitute an impermissible prior restraint. This theory offered no protection, the court held, because Pyle had expressly signed away his right to exploit the band’s history via “a private agreement that is narrowly-tailored to protect the bargained-for rights of its signatories.” Cleopatra’s First Amendment rights were not violated because the prohibition against making a film about Lynyrd Skynyrd was not a blanket one. As the court explained, “Cleopatra is prohibited from making its movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd when its partner substantively contributes to the project in a way that, in the past, he willingly bargained away the right to do just that; in any other circumstance, Cleopatra would be ‘free as a bird’ to make and distribute its work.”

The court granted plaintiffs an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs based on an attorneys’ fees provision contained in the consent order. The fee award was issued against Cleopatra as well as Pyle, because Cleopatra was aware of the consent order “and continued to make their film, in clear disregard” of its restrictions.

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Erin Smith Dennis