MuchMusic Documentary ‘299 Queen West’ Faces Legal Challenge From Universal Music Canada
Director Sean Menard says the major label contacted his legal team for his film about the beloved Canadian TV station, objecting to the use of unlicensed music clips.
The director of 299 Queen Street West, a documentary that tells the story of beloved Canadian TV station MuchMusic, says the future of his film is uncertain.
Director Sean Menard says his legal team has received correspondence from Universal Music Canada (UMC) that threatened a possible cease and desist against the documentary, which features audio and video clips from around 80 musicians, including many Universal artists.
By standard measures, the film has been a success: over 2,000 people came out to Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 22 to see the movie. With the permission of Bell Media, now the parent company of Much, the documentary uses archival footage to tell the story of the channel’s inception in the ‘80s and its heyday in the ‘90s and 2000s.
“The audiences were clapping every five minutes, for different personalities they would see,” Menard says of the screening. “It created this really unique energy in the room, where you’re having a shared experience with people that all grew up watching the channel.”
Earlier that same day, though, Menard says his team received notice from UMC objecting to the use of music clips that were not specifically licensed from the label, most of which originally aired on MuchMusic and CityTV.
“I knew I could not afford to license all these short clips,” says Menard, who also directed 2017’s The Carter Effect. He didn’t license the clips, but he argues he also didn’t need to, as the clips could be considered fair use. Menard says that UMC disputes his fair use claim and says they're threatening possible legal action to prevent further screenings of the documentary.
“No legal action has been pursued at this time,” says a spokesperson for Universal Music Canada. “At present, we are in active and good faith negotiations with the film’s legal and production team on the licensing of Universal’s recorded music.”
299 Queen Street West - The MuchMusic Documentary Trailer
299 Queen Street West first premiered at SXSW earlier this year. Menard is currently taking the film across the country on a 13-date tour, with screenings from Halifax to Victoria. The tour is billed as the “MuchMusic Experience,” and screenings also feature former Much VJs in conversation. In attendance at Montreal’s Oct. 17 screening at the Rialto Theatre were Erica Ehm and Rick Campanelli, as well as Sonia Benezra of the Montreal-based francophone version of Much, MusiquePlus.
Menard spoke about the legal concerns at the Montreal screening.
“There were music labels in attendance,” he says. “So I was just letting them know that I’m not stopping my tour. We’re continuing on.”
Menard says he put together the tour partly to recoup some of his investments he made into the documentary, which he mortgaged his house to finance. He spent six years working on the film, initially without securing access to the Much archives. After Menard edited together a trailer for the documentary, Bell Media agreed Menard could work with their old footage, and Bell’s Justin Stockman received an executive producer credit.
Menard hired a legal team to ensure he was following fair use practices. Menard worked with Donaldson Callif Perez, a law firm based in California, whose clients also include Live Nation and Turner Classic Movies. Menard says the legal team reviewed his footage to make sure he could claim fair use.
The Canadian Copyright Act doesn’t use the language of “fair use” but rather “fair dealing.” The Act states that “fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright,” but it does not define “fair.”
After providing their own comment, UMC also sent a legal explanation from Music Canada, a non-profit trade association that represents major labels, including them.
“In Canada, fair dealing is a narrow exception that allows some prescribed uses of music without licensing, but only for certain specific purposes that don’t undermine the music marketplace” says a spokesperson for Music Canada. “Uses of music in documentaries that don't meet this narrow exception require a sync license, as do other kinds of films and TV programs.”
Menard says he is insured in America for the film. His legal team provided him with a fair use opinion letter, which Menard says he used to purchase errors and omissions insurance as required by his licensing deal with Crave. According to Menard, if a lawsuit is brought against him, he has to pay an insurance deductible.
“I’m not really sure why they’re trying to shut down a film that’s celebrating the Canadian music industry, our history,” Menard says.
299 Queen Street West is set to premiere on Crave this December.