U.S. producers sue Anne of Green Gables licensing body for right to put on musical

CHARLOTTETOWN — The United States-based producers of a musical about Anne of Green Gables have filed a lawsuit in New York claiming that their show does not infringe on the copyright of Prince Edward Island's most famous export.

Filed last week in the Southern District of New York court by producers of the show, the lawsuit alleges that the novel by L.M. Montgomery is in the public domain.

“(The novel) is as much in the public domain as are Shakespeare’s plays," the lawsuit, filed by New York City-based Anne With An E, LLC, said. "Anyone has a legal right to make a work based on a public domain novel and call it by its title."

The producers said the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority — jointly owned by the province and heirs of L.M. Montgomery — sent them a demand letter asserting ownership of the trademark and asking for "Anne of Green Gables: A New Musical" to be renamed by Feb. 20. They responded with the lawsuit the following day.

There have already been numerous adaptations, reprints, prequels and sequels for "Anne of Green Gables,'' which joined the public domain in the United States in 1983 and in Canada in 1992.

The lawsuit alleges that the P.E.I.-based licensing authority is "brazenly attempting to impermissibly extend the life of, monetize, and enforce against … an expired copyright" under the guise of trademark law.

The licensing authority did not immediately return a request for comment. Its website states: "The Anne Authority was established to protect the integrity of the images of Anne, to preserve and enhance the legacy of L.M. Montgomery and her literary works, and to control the use of Anne of Green Gables and related trademarks."

Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts said in November that the world's longest-running theatre production, "Anne of Green Gables — The Musical,'' will not be staged this year during the centre's festival but will return in 2024 for Montgomery's 150th birthday. The musical was staged every year from 1965 to 2019, earning it recognition from Guinness World Records.

The producers of "Anne of Green Gables: A New Musical" said in the lawsuit that their show is based on the public domain novel and features an original book and lyrics by Matte O’Brien and music by Matt Vinson. The musical was last staged at the Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam, Conn., in July 2022, and is being developed for a Broadway production, the lawsuit adds.

The producers are asking for a declaratory judgment that their show "does not infringe upon any trademark or other intellectual property rights."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.

— By Hina Alam in Fredericton.

The Canadian Press