Tom Petty Documentary Stole Filmmaker’s Footage of Rock Legend, Lawsuit Claims

Tom Petty Documentary Stole Filmmaker’s Footage of Rock Legend, Lawsuit Claims

A filmmaker is suing Warner Music over the 2021 Tom Petty documentary Somewhere You Feel Free, calling the movie a “brazen exploitation” that used nearly an hour of his copyrighted film footage without permission.

In a lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles federal court, Martyn Atkins says he never gave the Somewhere producers consent to use hours of footage he filmed of the music legend during the 1990s but that the movie nonetheless contained “a shocking 45 minutes” of his materials.

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“Atkins did not provide consent, did not otherwise license any of the footage, and was not compensated in any manner for the Film’s unauthorized, brazen exploitation of the works Atkins created and owns,” his attorneys wrote in a June 18 complaint.

Released in March 2021, Somewhere You Feel Free promised viewers “never-before-seen footage” of Petty as he worked on his 1994 album Wildflowers. Much of the footage was filmed by Atkins, who served as art director for the album and says he often documented the proceedings with a 16mm camera. Later, Atkins says he and the music legend watched the footage and discussed eventually using it to create such a documentary.

But after Petty’s tragic death in 2017, the project didn’t come together until 2020, when Atkins says he was invited to a meeting with Petty’s daughter and other reps from his estate. After they promised him the job of directing the upcoming documentary, Atkins says, he provided them with a detailed breakdown of where he had stored the original footage at Warner Music’s storage facility.

But after that first encounter, he says he was “never asked to another meeting.”

“Atkins had been conned into believing he would produce and direct the film so that Atkins would reveal the location of his footage to defendants,” his lawyers write. “He was then cut out completely — in every imaginable respect. He was not even told as a courtesy that his works would be misappropriated and featured, let alone asked his consent.”

When he saw the movie, Atkins says he says he was shocked at what he saw: Roughly half of the movie’s 90-minute runtime was composed of his footage, including some of the “most compelling and iconic shots of Petty” in the movie. “Atkins simply could not believe it.”

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A likely defense argument from Warner Music is that Atkins produced the footage as a so-called work-for-hire — a legal term meaning he created it at the request of someone else. If true, that would mean that even though Atkins filmed the footage, the rights to it were retained by Petty or the label. After all, he was the art director on Petty’s album and stored the film in Warner’s facilities.

But in his lawsuit, Atkins specifically aimed to preempt that argument: “The footage Atkins shot … was not subject to a work-for-hire or other such agreement. Atkins did not license the footage to Petty, Warner Records, any Warner Records affiliate, or anybody else. He was not acting as an employee of Petty or Warner Records, or any other party [and]  here is no agreement in existence relating to any of the film footage.”

Beyond simply using the footage, the lawsuit claims that Somewhere‘s producers have “repeatedly misrepresented” that the footage was “magically and unexpectedly discovered” before the documentary was shot. “The film’s producers have systematically implemented this false narrative to manipulate the viewing public and bolster the marketing of the film,” the complaint reads.

In technical terms, the lawsuit names Warner Music unit WMG Productions LLC, as well as the film’s production company, Girl On LSD LLC. The lawsuit includes counts of direct and secondary copyright infringement and a claim that the defendants effectively stole his property.

Read the entire lawsuit here: