As a result of Netflix’s lawsuit against Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear, the creators of The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, fans have taken a surprising tack: siding with the media giant Netflix and the creators of Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes and Bridgerton series author Julia Quinn, and against the TikTok composers.
When the duo first came on the scene in 2021, they became media darlings, amassing a huge following on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. They had television appearances and stars from the show said they were fans of the songs.
Barlow and Bear had Netflix’s unofficial blessing on the Bridgerton fan album when it first went viral in the winter of 2021, as the streaming service’s own tweets attest. Documentation in the lawsuit shows that they even agreed not to “stand in the way” of the duo releasing an album which was hugely successful on Spotify, iTunes, etc.
When the women won a Grammy, making history as the first album to win a Grammy for a musical created on TikTok as well as being the youngest Grammy winners in the musical theater category and the only women nominated that year, everyone cheered them on.
However, when the duo announced they were staging a live concert at the Kennedy Center in DC, Netflix informed them they were crossing a very clear line. While winning a Grammy doesn’t pay and previous appearances were not specifically for profit off of the Bridgerton brand, the suit alleges this concert was. The duo needed a license to perform a live concert and Netflix offered one. Barlow and Bear refused it. Why, we can only speculate. Maybe they got bad advice, or they were cocky, thinking Netflix wouldn’t come for them after they generated so much good press for the Bridgerton brand, or, possibly, the license was too expensive to make it worth it. (Often a license of this type isn’t a flat fee but a percentage of the profits and a certain amount of control of the content.)
Instead, they went ahead with the concert and have been slapped with the suit.
TikTok users across the platform and the internet at large are taking to socials to revel in the drama of the situation, make fun of the duo who “girlbossed too close to the sun” as several commenters said, and sympathize with Netflix wanting to protect their intellectual property. Why hath the internet forsaken thee, Barlow and Bear?
Some commenters on these TikTok reaction videos think Barlow and Bear are allowing themselves to get sued for the publicity. Interesting theory, but that’s a risky publicity stunt, especially if the fine they might get if they lose the suit or settle out of court is hefty.
It seems much of the sympathy isn’t for Netflix, a faceless corporation, so much as for the creators behind Bridgerton, Shonda Rhimes, whose company Shondaland created the show, and Julia Quinn, who wrote the novels the show is based on. Both women issued emotional statements about the importance of protecting one’s creations. Quinn strikes a nerve with creators, saying, “I would hope that Barlow & Bear, who share my position as independent creative professionals, understand the need to protect other professionals’ intellectual property.” The plea of the independent creative struck a nerve with fans of the musical, who fell in love with the plucky girls creating a show from their living rooms, not mega stars charging $150 a ticket at the Kennedy Center.
Many TikTok creators with law expertise took to the platform to blast Barlow and Bear for their blatant breaking of the law, explaining fair use, transformative works, or calling this an open and shut case, like the user who laughed, “that’s not how copyright law works,” when referencing one of Barlow and Bear’s team’s arguments.
The fandom may have shifted alliances because, even without a law degree, they know how to play by the rules. “Copyright monetizes and propertizes our shared cultural experiences. Fair use says we can play with that culture without the permission of the property owner. Except when you make money. Then you have to worry about the property owner,” says Lydia Pallas Loren, a professor at Lewis and Clark who specializes in copyright law. If this case goes to court, as opposed to settling, it may set precedent that will make fan work less likely to fall under fair use. Bad news for fan creators.
So it seems most fans simply side with the original Bridgerton team because of what seems to be a fairly obvious flaunting of the rules of fandom. Creator Cocosarel breaks down the drama (“allegedly,” she clarifies) in a video with over 374,000 likes, humorously commenting on the Kennedy concert: “no licensing in sight, just vibes.” Many of the over 3000 commenters voice disgust at Barlow and Bear’s “audacity.” Several comments cite the statements from Rhimes and Quinn.
Another creator, annammmakes_, imitates Barlow and Bear acting as if they do not know any better after selling out their Kennedy Center concert. The 300+ comments on the 38,000-liked video do not hold back. Amy Brinson35 says, “it’s not a story of little people against big corporation, they literally sold out Kennedy Center not a high school musical in nowhereville,” while others insinuate that the women were handled poorly by their team. Ashley L says, “The plot twist they didn’t expect, literally SO MANY FANS THINK THEY ARE IN THE WRONG,” over 100 people liked the comment, and the creator responded, “I know! And I want to be on their side but like … this seems premeditated.” Barlow and Bear have lost the love of the people who made them who they are.
You’d think a platform made up of independent creators who were once like Barlow and Bear would stand by them in their time of strife, not abandon them. However, Barlow and Bear’s hubris might bring down future creators’ ability to create. If this project gets shut down, future ones might never get off the ground. Plus, fans don’t seem to like Barlow and Bear’s seeming disrespect for the female creators of the source material, Rhimes and Quinn.
While Ratatouille, the first TikTok musical, was a charity concert created by many and performed with Disney’s blessing, making money for the Actor’s Fund, which helped provide healthcare to performers during the pandemic when theaters were shut down, Barlow and Bear only advanced their own careers. The heroes in Barlow and Bear’s story did indeed fly too close to the sun and, when they fell into the sea, their community felt no need to save them.