Yoko Ono Fighting to Keep John Lennon Images Private

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They are rare, intimate images of John Lennon just before the breakup of the Beatles: He's hunched over a piano writing songs, smoking pot, joking about putting LSD in President Nixon's tea.

Almost four decades after the footage was shot at Lennon's estate in England, his widow is in court, fighting to keep the images private.

World Wide Video LLC, a Lawrence, Mass.-based company, claims it owns the 10 hours of raw footage, but Yoko Ono claims she is the rightful owner. World Wide Video has filed a federal lawsuit against Ono, claiming Ono's attempts to stop the company from publicly showing the footage is a copyright infringement.

At preliminary hearing in the case Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Boston, arguments on Ono's motion to dismiss were scheduled for May 21. Both sides also agreed not to show the film while the case is working through the courts.

The footage, which has never been shown publicly in its entirety, was shot Feb. 8-10, 1970, by Anthony Cox, Ono's husband before her marriage to Lennon in 1969.

It shows Lennon writing two songs that would later become hits — "Remember" and "Mind Games" — and shows him performing the song, "Instant Karma," according to a description in The Boston Globe, which was allowed to view the videotapes for a March 2007 story.

The footage also includes some tender moments, such as when Lennon blow-dries his wife's hair, and when Lennon and Ono play with Julian Lennon and Kyoko Cox, children from their previous marriages.

Lennon, who was 29 when the film was shot, also talks about the couple's drug use.

"We've resurrected hope in ourselves, and we're hoping to spread it around a bit — to tell people you can get off speed, you can get off H (heroin), you can get off pot. You know, because whatever they say, you do get hooked on it," Lennon says.

World Wide Video produced a two-hour documentary, "3 Days in the Life," using the footage, and planned to show it at a private school in Maine in 2007. The screening was scrapped after the company received a stop order from Ono's lawyers, claiming copyrighted ownership of the videotapes. The producers had previously shown excerpts from the film four times, including at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., and at entertainment and media conferences in New York and Connecticut.

Ray Thomas, executive producer of the documentary, said World Wide's principals are Beatles memorabilia collectors who hoped to show the film to high school and college students.

"We thought it would make a phenomenal educational and historic record for kids who didn't live in the '60s," Thomas said. "This is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and you're getting an intimate look at his life — from blow-drying his wife's hair to playing with the cat to performing `Instant Karma.'"

Ono's Boston lawyer, Jonathan Albano, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In court documents, Ono said she had a "clear and absolute" agreement with Cox when he shot the footage that it would never be "commercially exhibited, commercially exploited or released."

And Ono said she purchased all rights to the videotapes for $300,000 in 2002 from a broker, Anthony Pagola.

But the principals of World Wide Video — John Fallon and Robert Grenier — say the sale to Ono was invalid, and that it owns the videos and copyright after buying them from Cox for $125,000 in 2000.

In its lawsuit, World Wide claims that shortly after its purchase, the tapes were stolen by a former employee, John Messina, whom World Wide later sued. World Wide claims in its suit that in a settlement agreement, Messina agreed to return copies of the tapes and to help them locate the original set of tapes.

Messina, who attended the court hearing Wednesday, vigorously denied stealing the tapes and said he believes Ono is the rightful owner.

"These are Yoko's private tapes," he said. "Why would a widow want to take pictures of private moments from a happier time and have them put out there for the public to see?"

Fallon and Grenier claim that in 2001, Pagola approached them and threatened to destroy the tapes unless World Wide agreed to let him be a broker who would find a buyer.

World Wide signed an agreement with Pagola, but said in its lawsuit that Pagola was to find a buyer "for the purpose of development and production of a full-length documentary motion picture."

Fallon and Grenier claim that Pagola sold the tapes and copyright to Ono without their permission and that he forged their signatures on the sale agreement.

Pagola, who is named as a defendant along with Ono in World Wide's lawsuit, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.