Warner Music Faces Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Over Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ Documentary’s Archival Footage

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tom petty lawsuit
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A live performance from Tom Petty. Photo Credit: Irina Lepneva

Warner Music Group is facing a copyright infringement complaint from a filmmaker who says half of a 2021 documentary about Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (1994) consists of archival footage that was used without permission.

That filmmaker and artist, Martyn Atkins, just recently submitted the straightforward suit to a California federal court. Directed by Mary Wharton, the 90-minute WMG Productions project in question, Somewhere You Feel Free, by its own description draws “from an archive of 16mm film.”

But according to the Wildflowers art director Atkins, that film, which he shot three decades back, wasn’t discovered by chance. Rather, the veteran art professional, who’s worked with Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and an array of others, is said to have informed the Tom Petty estate of the footage’s location in Warner Records’ massive storage facilities.

The way Atkins tells the story, he and Petty were “fast friends”; besides working on the art for Wildflowers, the filmmaker captured ample footage during its creation and in “the months on the road following the album’s release.”

This footage “was not subject to a work-for-hire or other such agreement,” and Atkins, with a long-term aim of potentially compiling the video in a documentary, didn’t immediately license it to Petty or Warner Music, the action maintains.

“He was not acting as an employee of Petty or Warner Records,” the complaint elaborates, “or any other party… There is no agreement in existence relating to any of the film footage that is the subject of this infringement action.”

Around 1995, when the plaintiff was moving into a new studio and a new home, “Petty offered to have Atkins store his 16mm film reels and audio elements in a secure storage facility maintained by Warner Records in Los Angeles for safekeeping,” the lawsuit states.

As described by Atkins, he “maintained access to his materials in the facility at all times” – including in 2014, when Tom Petty is said to have brought up the possibility of a Wildflowers documentary and asked to see some of the relevant footage.

From there, the filmmaker “inventoried the raw materials, copied large amounts of the footage and some of the audio onto digital media, and brought selected materials to Petty’s home,” per his account.

“Petty was thrilled with what he saw,” the complaint continues, “and the two again discussed that Atkins should, when their schedules allowed, produce and direct a documentary about Wildflowers and the subsequent tour—primarily featuring Atkins’ footage.”

Scheduling conflicts presumably prevented the project from getting started between then and Petty’s 2017 passing. Fast forward to the aforementioned disclosure of the footage’s location, which is said to have been revealed by Atkins during an early 2020 “in-person meeting with Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, and the Petty estate manager.”

With the Wildflowers documentary front of mind, the conversation ostensibly touched on the creative direction thereof, financing, scheduling and more. Most importantly, given the purported disclosure of the decades-old footage, the plaintiff “was told he would be hired to direct and produce the film project under discussion,” per the legal text.

“Atkins left the meeting sincerely believing the next conversation would be to discuss developing the project budget and schedule,” the suit reads. “It did not cross his mind that anything nefarious was underway.”

However, he was allegedly cut out of the process entirely after that, including as a director and as the claimed owner of the footage.

“Atkins was not remotely aware of whether and the extent to which his footage would be used in the documentary that apparently was going to be made,” the action spells out. “Regardless, to the extent the producers wished to use his film or audio assets, Atkins expected he would be asked first, so that he could either decline or negotiate a license fee or other purchase agreement.”

Needless to say, given the firmly worded lawsuit, that license fee or different purchase agreement didn’t come to fruition. All told, Atkins is seeking damages, disgorgement, restitution, and a court order compelling the return of his “original film and audio materials.”