In early 2021, Emily Bear and Abigail Barlow began their venture of turning Netflix show ‘Bridgerton’ into a musical. The programme, inspired by the Bridgerton book series written by Julia Quinn, was adapted into a Netflix series in December of 2020. After the show became a rapid success, becoming Netflix’s most watched English-language series at the time1, Abigail Barlow took to TikTok to share a small clip of a song she had created based on the show and its characters. Undoubtedly, the TikTok went viral, birthing and breeding what Barlow and Bear called ‘The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’.
The pair produced 15 songs, with Netflix, Quinn and various cast members stating that they were ‘blown away’ by their creation. As the unofficial musical persisted to grow, clashes with the Netflix series came to light. However, Netflix agreed not to prevent the release of Barlow and Bear’s Bridgerton album release, labelling the duo as ‘two Bridgerton fans’. The album2, which was released in September 2021, followed suit with Barlow’s original TikTok sensation; becoming inundated with support. It is this, which led Barlow and Bear to win a Grammy in 2022 for Best Musical Theatre Album, trumping musical legend Andrew Lloyd Webber3. Moreover, this triumph held greater weight, as it represented a celebration for young creators and females within the field, as Barlow and Bear were the only female nominees.
Nonetheless, the success of Barlow and Bear soon began to dwindle. Following their Grammy win, Netflix informed Barlow and Bear that they could not stage live performances which would compete with Netflix’s own, to which the pair agreed. However, in June 2022, the duo announced a concert at the Kennedy Centre in Washington and Royal Albert Hall in London, outrightly neglecting Netflix’s instructions4. Netflix responded by stating that their concert would therefore be unauthorised, and a clear display of copyright infringement since they had not negotiated a contract with the streaming giant.
Despite the clear warning of potential litigation, Barlow and Bear went ahead with their first concert at the Kennedy Centre, provoking Netflix to launch a lawsuit against them on 29th July 20225. Within the lawsuit, Netflix alleged 4 counts of copyright infringement by the duo6, and claimed that they had taken ‘valuable intellectual property’ they owned ‘to build an international brand’ and various revenue streams for themselves7. It comes as no surprise that this concert was the tipping point for Netflix, as it marks a clear threat towards their own profits, the unofficial musical becoming competition rather than creation.
In response to such legal proceedings, Barlow and Bear cancelled their second concert, which was to be held in London, yet remain silent on the matter. Contrastingly, Bridgerton show writer Shonda Rhimes, has spoken out about the pair’s noncompliance, condemning it as a ‘blatant taking of intellectual property’8. What’s more, is the social media response from Barlow and Bear’s supporters. In spite of their immense following, fans and viewers have not been shy in their scrutiny of the pair, expressing their confusion as to why they dared to defy such clear legal instructions. One TikTok commentor even declared that ‘it’s not a story of little people against big corporation’9, as Barlow and Bear’s resistance was on such a large and prolific scale.
Several possibilities currently lie at large for Barlow and Bear, such as opportunities for an amicable settlement and even the complete prevention of profitable success from their ‘Unofficial Bridgerton Musical’. Even so, at this moment in time, details regarding any outcomes are very much clandestine. However, it is apparent that this case has the potential to set out clear margins on fan fiction, and define the parameters between the relationship of rightsholders and fan communities to a diverse range of audiences.
It is truly a shame that Barlow and Bear refused to cooperate, as they achieved remarkable progress and represented change for women in an industry where they are outnumbered by 9 to 110. Thus, their defiance of the law should not eradicate their success completely, but instead, constitute a lesson for independent creators regarding the significance of intellectual property laws, especially in an age where fan content is evolving rapidly.
Written by Jennifer Reynolds