The owners of a photograph on glass believed to be the last known image of Abraham Lincoln are suing the Discovery Channel and others in Los Angeles for allegedly violating a nondisclosure agreement and misappropriating years of research in a documentary set to air Sunday, according to court documents obtained Thursday.
Dr. Jerry Spolar and Dr. Tonny Jill Williamson allege breach of contract, violation of trade secrets, and unfair competition and are asking the court to stop Discovery’s broadcast of “Undiscovered: The Lost Lincoln,” which investigates whether the photo — known as an ambrotype — could be the 131st and final image of Lincoln, taken after his assassination on April 14, 1865, according to the complaint filed Friday in Los Angeles federal court.
Discovery Communications argues that it didn’t know about competing claims of ownership when it contracted with a production company co-owned by Mark Wahlberg last year to make the documentary.
The channel also contends there is not enough legal reason to warrant a temporary restraining order stopping the broadcast.
“The Supreme Court’s precedent on prior restraint is ironclad,” the channel’s attorneys wrote in their filing Monday.
“In the famous Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court established that a plaintiff must make an extraordinary showing of harm in order to obtain a court order that stops the news media from publishing information on a matter of public concern.”
Spolar, an Illinois dentist, and his partner Williamson partnered to acquire ownership of the photo and spent more than two decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars to confirm its authenticity, according to their suit.
At the center of the dispute is Discovery Channel’s contractor Whitny Braun, the host and executive producer of the documentary, who is being sued for allegedly stealing trade secrets from the plaintiffs.
In February 2018, she and her father, James Braun, and Archie Gips, president of the production company Unrealistic Ideas, signed non-disclosure agreements swearing to protect the trade secrets prior to a detailed presentation about the photograph and plans for a documentary, Spolar and Williamson allege in the lawsuit.
The suit alleges that despite promising secrecy and being in receipt of cease and desist letters, Whitny Braun, along with Unrealistic Ideas, sought to profit from the ambrotype and the plaintiffs’ research and authentication work.
“Discovery Channel should have more respect for the rich history of the Lincoln legacy than to knowingly attempt to produce a documentary based on illegally obtained trade secret intellectual property, painstakingly created over decades of effort,” according to the plaintiffs’ attorney Dylan W. Wiseman.
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