Cohen wins Tony dispute

Deceased producer's heirs own Bentwood-produced telecasts

NEW YORK — The day before Alexander H. Cohen’s death on April 22, an arbitrator ruled for the producer in his long-standing dispute with the League of American Theatres and Producers regarding control of the Tony Awards programs produced by Cohen’s Bentwood Television Corp. between 1967 and 1986.

The decision was not released or made known to the Cohen family until weeks later, said attorney Eugene Girden of Pollack & Greene, who represented Bentwood in the case.

In early June, the League filed for a modification of arbitrator Michael S. Oberman’s decision. However, the award was recently upheld.

The dispute arose from agreements that Bentwood and the League entered into in 1967, 1970 and 1975. Oberman ruled that Cohen’s company held the right, subject to the consent of the League and the American Theater Wing, to exploit excerpts from the awards programs. However, in what Oberman referred to as “the most contentious aspect of the dispute,” the League’s consent cannot be unreasonably withheld or delayed.

The League argued that its consent could be conditioned on the receipt of payment, of the same amount paid to Bentwood, for the use of a clip or segment. Oberman wrote: “I find that the League may not insist that it and the Wing each receive the same amount of the license fee to be paid to Bentwood as the condition for the League’s consent to the use of a clip.”

The League is limited to receiving a percentage payment specified in the original agreements governing the broadcasts.

Ownership precedent

The League argued that it owned the Tony Awards programs much as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences owns the Emmy programs and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences owns the Oscar programs. Attorney Charles S. Sims, who repped the League, wrote, “Does it really make sense that the League and the Wing would not have kept ownership of the Tony programs?”

Oberman admitted the League and Wing do own the most recent Tony broadcasts. “Yet the core of Mr. Cohen’s testimony… ,” Oberman wrote, “convinces me that the programs in dispute were produced in circumstances different from those associated with the contemporaneous Emmy programs.”

The arbitrator flatly rejected the League’s contention that Cohen’s Tony Awards productions were works for hire, referring to the fact that the producer had “re-conceptualized” the awards.

“The timing of this whole thing was so ironic,” said Jerry Cohen, the late producer’s son, “but we are very pleased. My father felt this was very valuable property that had future marketability.”

Girden said of Cohen, “He firmly believed that these Tony broadcasts represented one of the only records of the musical theater in the United States for a 40-year period.”

A spokesman for the League had no comment on the arbitrator’s decision.

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