A lawsuit was filed today in a Los Angeles court against the network and parent company Disney.
It alleges last week’s special, The Last Days of Michael Jackson, illegally used significant excerpts of his most valuable songs, including Billie Jean and Bad, and music videos, including Thriller and Black or White.
The lawsuit says ABC used clips from the estate’s 2016 Spike Lee-directed documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, and from the 2009 feature film Michael Jackson’s This is It.
The lawsuit alleges at least 30 violations and seeks unspecified damages and an injunction against further use of the estate’s intellectual property.
It frequently cites Disney’s aggressive defense of its own copyrights and its normally narrow view of “fair use”, the doctrine in copyright law that says short excerpts can be used for news, criticism and research.
“Like Disney, the lifeblood of the estate’s business is its intellectual property,” the lawsuit says.
“Yet for some reason, Disney decided it could just use the estate’s most valuable intellectual property for free.”
Representatives from ABC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But when the Jackson camp first raised objections last week, the network defended the special as a legal work of journalism on a newsworthy subject that “does not infringe on his estate’s rights”.
The network said as a courtesy it stopped using an image of Jackson to promote the show that the estate had objected to.
As a work of news, the special would be entitled to fair use of excerpts of Jackson’s work, but the lawsuit dismisses the idea the documentary had any news value, calling it “a mediocre look back at Michael Jackson’s life and entertainment career”.
The lawsuit says warning letters sent to Disney attorneys before the airing went unanswered.
The special focused on Jackson’s apparent decline in the run-up to his death on 25 June 2009. The 50-year-old left behind heirs that include his mother and three children.
Jackson died of acute intoxication of propofol, a prescription anesthetic he had been taking as a sleep aid during preparations for a series of comeback concerts.
Former cardiologist Conrad Murray was convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for giving Jackson a fatal dose of the drug. He served two years in jail, and his conviction was upheld in 2014.