With its stately Colonial homes and sailboat-dotted harbors, Connecticut might not be the first place that people think of when it comes to the glitzy glamour of movie deals and recording contracts.
But for a small number of specialty law firms in the state, the proximity to New York City and the large number of entertainers who call Connecticut home has brought a steady flow of business in the practice area, which typically includes a mix of contract law to secure artists’ creative work and copyright law to protect the performers’ royalties. Robert Redford, David Letterman and Joan Rivers are among dozens of entertainment professionals who live in the state and have been known to rely on Connecticut lawyers to help them get paid.
One new firm launched in Westport by established attorney Stephen E. Nevas is banking on new business from the increase of musical and dramatic performances being copied and shared through the use of YouTube and other digital media. He represents clients in his media and entertainment law practice who are constantly on the lookout for infringement of their copyright-protected songs and film performances.
“When you distribute these performances digitally, online, there is always a risk of outright theft of the material,” Nevas said, meaning someone accesses something they should be paying for, without paying, and also infringement. “It’s the new world we live in, the bands don’t make any money selling records any more, they make their money from the concerts.”
As Nevas explained, many actors and actresses “are very fearful” of new technology by which their performances can be digitally “cloned,” or copied, and redistributed without their approval. If copyright-protected songs or movie scripts are infringed upon, “most clients want to go after them.”
He said the Internet has opened up a “whole new world” of infringement claims.
Peter Giuliani, a law firm business consultant based in Weston, said live entertainers like Jerry Seinfeld are doing “almost all” of their creative content on the Internet. Some of those performances are sold in pay-per-view formats. Others are available to subscribers only.
“It’s cheaper and you don’t have to please censors and sponsors,” Giuliani said. That kind of creative control is something that entertainment professionals like, but it comes with a price. Restricting access can attract those who want to view or distribute the material without paying. If something really gets a lot of eyeballs, it increases the chance for infringement and lawsuits.
With the potential for business growing because of internet performances, Giuliani said attorneys will see an increase in business “wherever these leading creative visionaries choose to live.”
Because of its proximity to New York City, Connecticut could stand to gain more of that type of work.
Nevas thinks that will be the case. The co-chair of the Media and Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, he said entertainment-related legal matters are about 10 percent of his practice right now. “But I expect that to be a growing area,” he said.
Nevas represents businesses, publishers, producers, artists, writers and musicians to register and defend their copyrights and trademarks. The rest of his practice includes civil litigation and appeals as well as land use, zoning and real estate, the food industry and estate administration.
He is the former general counsel of National Public Radio. He served as First Amendment Counsel to the National Association of Broadcasters and was chief law correspondent at CNN, covering the U.S. Supreme Court.
After graduating from Yale Law School, he joined the law firm of Nevas & Nevas, which was formed by his father, Bernard Nevas and uncle, Leo Nevas.
It was at the Westport office of the family firm that Nevas gained his first experience representing actor Paul Newman. “I represented him in some of his entertainment work, and some trademark and licensing relating to his Newman’s Own company,” which markets popcorn, salad dressing and other foods and gives the proceeds to charity.
Recently, he represented Newman in a lobbying effort to pass a state law that would prevent reproducing digital performances. “The First Amendment community came crashing down on us, and the legislature didn’t do anything with it,” Nevas said.
Nevas said the issue remains a live one. “The studios and networks are scared to death of performances being copied without permission,” he said.
Connecticut has seen a handful of notable entertainment law cases over the past year. In May, Sony Music Entertainment settled a lawsuit with Stamford-based entertainment lawyer James Walker Jr., who said the record company retaliated against him for winning higher pay for the gospel music artist he represents.
Walker claimed executives at Sony pressured some of gospel music’s biggest stars, including Grammy winners Hezekiah Walker, Donald Lawrence and Twinkie Clark, into dropping Walker as their agent to reduce costs and retain control over the contract process. The lawsuit settled for an undisclosed amount. “It was a victory, because the artists stood up,” Walker said.
In another federal lawsuit, hip-hop artists David and Peter Currin of Bloomfield won a $229,000 judgment in a lawsuit in which they claimed their lawyers, the Blake Law Firm in East Hartford, did not adequately represent their interests in a claim that their song had been stolen and used by another artist. Neither the Currins nor their former law firm could be reached for comment.
Walker said that while some Connecticut-based performers like to work with Connecticut lawyers when hashing out the terms of a recording contract, the successful entertainment lawyers who work on those kinds of deals almost always have a “connection to New York.”
“If you’re going to be a player in this business, particularly in the music side, you’ve got to be a player in New York.”
Nevas said he thinks some of his clients in the entertainment business prefer to work with him, because he’s closer to their homes. “Most of the big [contract] deals are done in New York or on the West Coast, where the producers are,” he acknowledged. But for the work his firm does, Nevas said, “we are hearing that a lot of our clients would rather work with someone closer to home.”•