NEW YORK (Reuters) - Surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd cannot block the release of a movie created with help from a former drummer, and which depicted the plane crash that killed the southern rock band’s lead singer, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
By a 3-0 vote, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan overturned a permanent injunction that had stopped Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records Inc from distributing “Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.”
The movie was partially based on the memories of Artimus Pyle, one of 20 survivors of the Oct. 20, 1977 crash of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s touring plane in Mississippi. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and five others died.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is known for the songs “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” both recorded before the crash.
While agreeing that Pyle could tell his own life story, the surviving members persuaded U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet in August 2017 after a non-jury trial that the movie, which cost $1.2 million to make, violated a 1988 consent decree governing the use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s name and history.
But the appeals court said the wording of the decree was problematic because it blocked Pyle from making a movie about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history, but not a movie about his experiences with the band, including the crash.
“That crash is part of the ‘history’ of the band, but it is also an ‘experience’ of Pyle with the band, likely his most important experience,” it wrote. “Provisions of a consent decree that both prohibit a movie about such a history and also permit a movie about such an experience are sufficiently inconsistent, or at least insufficiently specific, to support an injunction.”
The appeals court also said free speech concerns warranted “caution” before approving an injunction that “restrains the viewing of an expressive work prior to its public availability.”
Johnny Van Zant, who succeeded his brother as lead singer, and guitarist Gary Rossington were among the plaintiffs. Their lawyer, Richard Haddad, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Pyle left Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1991 and was not involved in the appeal, court records show.
Evan Mandel, a lawyer for Cleopatra, in an email called the decision a victory for the “marketplace of ideas.”
“The band fails to appreciate the irony of singing about freedom while attempting to use a secret gag order to prevent other artists from expressing views with which the band disagrees,” Mandel said.The case is Ronnie Van Zant Inc et al v. Pyle et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-2849.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas