Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear are being sued by Netflix for staging “for-profit” performances of their Grammy-winning Unofficial Bridgerton Musical.
In a lawsuit filed on Friday to a D.C. District Court, the streamer alleges that the duo and their company Barlow & Bear have profited off of “valuable intellectual property from the Netflix original series Bridgerton” through a July 26 staged performance of the musical at the Kennedy Center and a future performance set for the Royal Albert Hall in London, as well as “their own line of Bridgerton-themed merchandise.”
“Bridgerton reflects the creative work and hard-earned success of hundreds of artists and Netflix employees,” the suit says. “Netflix owns the exclusive right to create Bridgerton songs, musicals, or any other derivative works based on Bridgerton. Barlow & Bear cannot take that right — made valuable by others’ hard work — for themselves, without permission. Yet that is exactly what they have done.”
The suit argues that the songwriting duo did this despite repeated conversations with Netflix that their works were “not authorized.” Netflix is calling Barlow and Bear’s album and performances “blatant infringement of intellectual property rights” amid an effort “to build an international brand for themselves.”
“At each step of the way, Barlow & Bear’s representatives repeatedly assured Netflix that they understood Netflix’s position and led Netflix to believe that Netflix would be consulted before Barlow & Bear took steps beyond streaming their album online in audio-only format. Barlow & Bear’s agent said that they had no interest in interfering with Netflix’s rights or in being known only as the ‘Bridgerton girls.’
“Barlow & Bear’s representations were false,” it continues. “Despite their assurances to the contrary, Barlow & Bear are now claiming carte blanche authorization to profit from Netflix’s protected intellectual property in whatever way they see fit.”
In the lawsuit, Netflix acknowledges that Bear and Barlow were among “countless other fans inspired by the series” who began posting musical compositions based on the show’s characters, dialogue and plot to social media platforms like TikTok following the release of its first season in December 2020. But, the streamer says, their live show featured content that was taken “verbatim” from the series and performed for a “sold-out audience at the Kennedy Center” where tickets ranged up to $149 in addition to VIP packages.
“The show featured over a dozen songs that copied verbatim dialogue, character traits and expression, and other elements from Bridgerton the series. It included dramatic portrayals of Bridgerton characters by Broadway actors, emoting through the performance of the songs that comprise the ‘musical,’” the suit says. “Throughout the performance, Barlow & Bear misrepresented to the audience that they were using Netflix’s BRIDGERTON trademark ‘with Permission,’ while Netflix vigorously objected.”
In response to the suit, Netflix, producer Shonda Rhimes and Bridgerton author Julia Quinn have all released statements, with a spokesperson for the streamer stating that it “supports fan-generated content, but Barlow & Bear have taken this many steps further, seeking to create multiple revenue streams for themselves without formal permission to utilize the Bridgerton IP.”
The statement goes on to reiterate the language in the filing. “We’ve tried hard to work with Barlow & Bear, and they have refused to cooperate. The creators, cast, writers and crew have poured their hearts and souls into Bridgerton, and we’re taking action to protect their rights.”
Rhimes also celebrated the outpouring of fan content that has come in the wake of the show’s debut in December 2020 but argues that Barlow and Bear have turned “celebration” into the “blatant taking” of IP.
“There is so much joy in seeing audiences fall in love with Bridgerton and watching the creative ways they express their fandom,” Rhimes says in her statement. “What started as a fun celebration by Barlow & Bear on social media has turned into the blatant taking of intellectual property solely for Barlow & Bear’s financial benefit. This property was created by Julia Quinn and brought to life on screen through the hard work of countless individuals. Just as Barlow & Bear would not allow others to appropriate their IP for profit, Netflix cannot stand by and allow Barlow & Bear to do the same with Bridgerton.”
Quinn in her own statement calls the duo “wildly talented” but states there’s “a difference” between a TikTok composition and “performing for commercial gain.”
“Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear are wildly talented, and I was flattered and delighted when they began composing Bridgerton songs and sharing with other fans on TikTok,” Quinn’s message reads. “There is a difference, however, between composing on TikTok and recording and performing for commercial gain. I would hope that Barlow & Bear, who share my position as independent creative professionals, understand the need to protect other professionals’ intellectual property, including the characters and stories I created in the Bridgerton novels over twenty years ago.”
In April the duo won the 2022 Grammy for best musical theater album, and late last year performed “Ocean Away,” a song from their musical album based on Bridgerton alongside Darren Criss during the Kennedy Center’s 50th Anniversary concert. Their music gained popularity during 2021, after they posted a collection of music video performances and compositions to TikTok, including one Netflix’s official Twitter account tweeted in January 2021.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to reps for Bear and Barlow for comment.