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9th Circuit reverses decision in copyright suit linked to ‘Jersey Boys’

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday reversed a decision in a copyright lawsuit against founders of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the Four Seasons and developers of the group’s biographical musical “Jersey Boys.”

Donna Cobrello, whose late husband ghostwrote the autobiography of ex-Four Seasons member and Las Vegas resident Tommy DeVito, may be entitled to royalties, according to the ruling from the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit. The case was sent back to Nevada federal court.

Besides DeVito, Cobrello’s copyright suit named Four Seasons members Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio and businesses associated with “Jersey Boys.”

A Nevada federal judge in 2011 denied Cobrello’s claims of copyright infringement and failure to pay royalties.

Her late husband, Rex Woodard, finished DeVito’s biography in 1991, according to court documents. But Woodard died from lung cancer the same year, Cobrello said, before the duo could find a publisher.

DeVito registered a near-identical copy of the autobiography with the U.S. Copyright Office under only his own name four months before her husband’s death, Cobrello said. That work eventually became the basis for “Jersey Boys” and other works that should have earned her royalties as her husband’s heir.

The federal court in Nevada denied Cobrello’s claims in 2011, saying DeVito granted a “selectively exclusive license” to the eventual producers of the musical, not copyright interest.

But in its decision made public Tuesday, the 9th Circuit cited a 1984 decision from a case it heard, Oddo v. Ries, saying “a co-owner of a copyright must account to other co-owners for any profits he earns from licensing or use of the copyright.”

DeVito did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday. His lawyer Sam Lionel, of Las Vegas, also could not be reached for comment.

Daniel Mayeda, the attorney for Valli and Gaudio, said he is still analyzing the decision but expects a positive outcome for his clients.

“At the end of the day, I think we will get a finding that there was no infringement of the autobiography in ‘Jersey Boys,’” Mayeda said.

Las Vegas copyright attorney Mark Borghese called this case “extremely complex.”

“Not only do we have a situation where there are co-copyright owners, but one of the owners entered into multiple agreements without the knowledge or consent of the other,” he said. “It is one of the peculiarities of intellectual property law. When you have two owners, they both have an equal right to do whatever they want with their rights. This inevitably leads to disputes.”

The Tony Award-winning stage version of “Jersey Boys” debuted on Broadway in 2005 and expanded to the Strip in 2009, opening at the Palazzo. It’s now at the Paris Las Vegas.

Featuring Four Seasons hits such as “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night),” the musical goes beyond the New Jersey-born band’s effervescent music to show a darker side outside the limelight. That includes marriage troubles, death and Devito’s gambling debts, which caused problems for the group.

Clint Eastwood directed a film version of “Jersey Boys” that was released in 2014.

Contact reporter Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638. Find him on Twitter: @ColtonLochhead.

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