Disney facing dollars 200m Writ of Spring

EIGHTY years after the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's discordant pagan ballet The Rite of Spring moved an uncomprehending Paris audience to riot, the score is again the cause of bitter disagreement. But this time the dispute is set to be fought out in the American courts rather than the orchestra pit.

Boosey & Hawkes, the London- based publisher that owns the copyright to Stravinsky's works, has taken umbrage at Walt Disney's 1991 decision to release a video version of Fantasia, its much-loved 1941 cartoon.

One sequence in the film depicts the creation of the world and the coming of the age of the dinosaurs to the accompaniment of a modified version of The Rite of Spring.

The publishers, who say videos were not even a twinkle in Stravinsky's eye when he gave Disney permission to use the music in the film, have fired off a writ claiming damages of about dollars 200m ( pounds 130m) for breach of their copyright.

'The licence Stravinsky gave Disney was explicitly restricted to the use of the music for one motion picture for theatrical distribution,' said Jody Pope, the New York lawyer representing Boosey.

Boosey, which bought the bulk of Stravinsky's copyrights from the composer in 1947, feels its case is reinforced by the fact that when Disney released a soundtrack of the film it agreed to pay royalties to reflect the fact its licence did not extend to alternative media.

Needless to say Disney, which has already sold more than 14 million copies of Fantasia, worth about dollars 300m, does not agree.

But then bad feelings between the Disney and Stravinsky camps run deep. Stravinsky, who was paid dollars 6,000 - dollars 1,000 of which went to his publishers - for the use of the music, felt he had been used and misled by Disney. His memoirs record that Disney's 'request' to record and perform the music was accompanied by the warning that if consent was not given the film studio would use the music anyway.

Disney would have been within its rights in so doing, at least in the US. At the time the music was composed in 1913 Stravinsky was a Russian citizen. No copyright treaty then existed between Russia and America - though, as many other countries around the world did offer protection to Russian works, Disney needed Stravinsky's consent if it was to release the film outside North America.

This insult became injury when Stravinsky saw the final version of the film, in which elements of his controverisal and complex score had been altered and the more difficult aspects dropped - though this, as Stravinsky records 'did not save the musical performance, which was execrable'.

His verdict on the cartoon sequence itself - in which the carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex finishes off his vegetarian cousins before being annihilated by the forces of climatic change - was no better. 'I will say nothing about the visual complement as I do not wish to criticise unresisting imbecility,' the composer said.