Lucas Brunelle, the King of New York, and the War on Britain’s Roads

I finally, reluctantly watched ‘War on Britain’s Roads’, which is a documentary recently aired on BBC 1.  I had heard about the documentary some months ago, having been contacted by a researcher acting for the makers.  He told me that they were making a film about the conflict on Britain’s roads, and the role that video footage was playing in it, and were interviewing protaganists in some of the more notorious incidents.

I realised before he went on what was coming next.  No, I wasn’t willing to help the film-makers identify the riders in ‘London Calling’, Lucas Brunelle’s now notorious film.  Not in a million years.  The researcher tried to persuade me that the footage and interviews would be a valuable contribution to a balanced view of the problems on Britain’s roads.  I snorted.

When he told me that Cynthia Barlow was participating, my heart sunk, and I told him that I would die of shame if ‘London Calling’ was shown as part of a programme featuring Cynthia.  Well, despite my best efforts, the footage was shown, and although I haven’t died, I do feel absolutely mortified.

I have been proud of the messenger community for its part in helping, in some small way, to repopularise cycling, by showing that it is a practical, economical alternative to motor transport.  I also like to think that bicycle messengers have had some impact in other, less tangible ways on cycle culture.  I was also proud of having helped to highlight the danger of lorries, when I was chair of the London Bicycle Messenger Association.

Now I feel sick that our actions in ‘London Calling’ have been used to undermine the cycling community, and the work of good people like Cynthia Barlow on national television.

And the worst part is that I knew this day was coming.  I feared it, and did as much as I could to prevent it.  I made it pretty clear in this post ‘The Revolutions Will Not Be Televised’ why I thought it was a really bad idea to allow any film-maker near an alleycat.

But once Lucas posted ‘London Calling’ on You Tube, it was only a matter of time before it was picked up by someone, somewhere.

There’s been a lot of talk about the footage, which features some pretty stupid riding by some people I know really well.  The race that features in it was called ‘Lost In The Crowd’, and Walshy, who organised, wrote a report of how the race came to be on Moving Target.  If you read the report, you will notice two things: first, Lucas put up £300 cash prizes; second, he had a very clear idea of what footage he wanted from the race.

In his report, Walshy says:

Brendt Barbur called me a few days later and explained that his friend Lucas Brunelle had a few guidelines for the race. A basic set of criteria was established in the hope of maximising the transfer of excitement, and dare I say danger, from real life onto the big screen.

further on he also says:

We selected lots of short checkpoints so that there would only be one ideal route between them and maybe 1 or 2 alternatives. We were hoping that the riders would bunch up for most of the race so that Lucas could tailgate large numbers kinda like the ‘Running of the Bulls’ where Lucas represents the bull and everyone else represents the heartless and inhumane crowd. Ideally, by the end of the race, every rider would have ridden exactly the same route and Lucas would have sat behind, and among, the main pack catching all the action.

In other words, the idea was to create a race with maximum chaos on the road, and that this was what Lucas was looking for.  To encourage the riders to go as fast as possible, and take as many risks as possible, Lucas also had put up £300 in cash prizes.  At the time, the first prize of £125 would be equivalent to nearly half a week’s wages for most couriers (average earnings have shrunk considerably, and this would now be more than half a week’s wages for most London cycle couriers).

Previously, I have deliberately avoided criticising Lucas Brunelle directly, because there seemed little point in starting a fight over something I couldn’t change.  It was pretty clear to me early on in his career as ‘film-maker’ that he seemed intent on building a reputation as a ‘bad-ass’ who could hang with the ‘craziest bike racers in the world’, and was unlikely to listen to anything I had to say, or read anything I might write.

I was confirmed in this view when I saw ‘Line of Sight’ (it’s on You Tube, and you can find it yourselves – I’m not going to link it) at the cinema.  After an interminable opening 10 minutes of ‘race footage’, the film cuts to a panaromic view of New York’s skyline, and then Lucas appears in the fore-ground (hence my ironic titling of him as the ‘the King of New York’), and then he gives an entirely fatuous monologue on alleycat racing, intercut with more race footage.  It’s notable that Lucas’ choice of sound-track for his movies is similar to the choice of Leopard Films for ‘War On Britain Roads’ – wailing guitars, thrashing drums and portentous, thumping bass.

Peter Walker, of the Guardian, tweeted last night that:

Blog doesn’t even point out the footage is six years old, or that cameraman is not ‘involved in race’ but professionally filming it

Peter, you don’t know the half of it.  Lucas is not a professional film-maker.  He runs, according to this Bicycle Magazine interview, an IT company.  This allows him to fund his hobby of going around the world to participate in, and film, alleycats.  I have no idea whether he manipulates all or any of the other races he films in the way that he manipulated ‘Lost In The Crowd’, by determining course routing, and putting up cash prizes to encourage increased participation.  By the way, in the Bicycling interview, Lucas is quoted thus: I love cars. Fuck bike advocacy.  There’s no way of telling whether Lucas is being serious, but it fits with the whole ‘fuck you, I’m not going to do what you tell me’ attitude.

In no way could his film-making be described as ‘professional’.  The double head-cam set-up is well-designed, the images are pretty high quality, but that’s the extent of his craft – that, and his ability to ride a bike as quickly as some of ‘craziest bike racers in the world’.  The films that he produces have little artistic merit, in my opinion.  Once you get beyond what’s happening on the screen, they are boring, and way, way too long.   The novelty of watching people make ill-advised manouevres wears off pretty quickly.  I always come away from the films thinking: what a bunch of idiots, and what a waste of my time.

I don’t want to get into a discussion of the wisdom or otherwise of alleycats here;  I put down my thoughts in a blog post on Moving Target, after the death of a participant in the Da Tour de Chicago.

However, I will say this:  many people (indeed some of the cyclists watching the ‘London Calling’ footage for the BBC programme) say that the riders shown in Lucas’ film are demonstrating ‘skill’.  I disagree.  There is no skill in cutting through a junction and hoping that the cars crossing your path, who have right of way, will stop for you – it’s just rude, stupid and dangerous.   Skilful riding in traffic is cutting through the flow without making waves, not barging to the front of queue, forcing other people to get out of your way.  As for the incidents involving pedestrians, really, truly shameful.  Criminal, as the police officer says in his comments in the programme.

Charlie Lloyd, on behalf of the London Cycling Campaign, put out a press release in which he described the racers as ‘professionals’.  Charlie was being very, very charitable.  A lot of the guys in that race were couriers, so their profession was using a bike to deliver parcels – they were not professional racers.  If they were that good at racing bikes, they would have gone on to win real races.

The numbers of professional road racers who were couriers is very small.  I only know of one of note, and that is the legendary New Yorker, Nelson Vails.  Maurice Burton was a London courier, but only after his racing career had ended.  Ray Eden, who was a London bicycle courier, and then went on to race, was probably good enough to race with the pros, and if he  had been part of the current British Cycling programme, I think he would have done.  These guys are the exception, not the rule.

I heard from other people that the film-makers had contacted, people that had been in the race.  They had all refused to participate.  The film-makers were persistent.  I know for a fact that a couple of were contacted multiple times, and one was offered £500 to participate.  I spoke to the guy who was offered the money, which was tempting to him, because, like Lucas’ £125 prize, it was a lot of money for someone in a low-paid, dangerous job.  I told him that it would only be worth doing if he received enough money to be able to leave the country and not come back.

I am proud that no-one participated.  However, I am genuinely ashamed that the London messenger community has, however inadvertently, brought shame on itself in this way.  I had nothing to do with the race, did not ride in it, but please accept my apology.

When I spoke to the film-makers, I explained the context, as I have outlined above, in which the film was made. They told me that Lucas had been contacted and had consented to let his footage be used.  This made me angry.  I suggested to the researcher that the person they should be putting in front of the camera was Lucas, so that he could explain why he organised that race, and what role his camera played.

He created the race, he encouraged the riders to go as fast they could, and he filmed it.  Why?

In the original version of this article I stated that the first prize was £300.  This was incorrect.  The total prize fund was £300, with the first prize being £125.

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40 comments
  1. Lucas *was* interviewed by Leopard Films. They cut him out, no doubt because crediting an American with organising a one-off race with a cash prize didn’t fit it in with the agenda of portraying the alley cat footage as standard behaviour from cyclists.

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    • I’ve heard different things, all just hearsay. I’m told that Lucas insists that he did not give permission to the film-makers. On the other hand, another account is that he sent them HD footage and got paid. Which one is true is moot, as the film has been up on You Tube for 6 years, so freely available to any or all to use as they wish.

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      • “…freely available to any or all to use as they wish.”

        You can post a video to YouTube, and allow others to embed the clip in their blog posts, but it is unacceptable for a public service broadcaster to republish material such as this without the express permission of the copyright holder, which in this case one assumes remains Brunelle. The BBC has clear editorial rules on such things, as do commercial broadcasters. There are journalistic ethics issues relating to editorial manipulation as well as copyright ownership matters at stake here.

        It all comes back to the question of whether Brunelle gave permission to Leopard Films to use his film, and, if so, under what terms.

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      • Interesting. Only Lucas Brunelle knows the answer to that question. Thanks for the input.

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  2. Dave H said:

    Probably explains why Lucas was not happy then, this exposure on TV might have encouraged more hits for his other mad cycling videos, and not even being credited for footage. Nuff sed

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  3. Mick Mack said:

    As I remember it they did make it clear what was happening. That it was a courier/alleycat thing. It was no more than a couple of minutes of a 60 minute programme. Hollywood made a film not long ago – Premium Rush – to give a thrill. That’s what some film-makers do. I thought it was a pretty tame prog by the BBC.

    I’m a courier in Bristol. I don’t do alleycats. I think they appear exciting and don’t have a problem with those who take part if they accept the consequences – i.e. I don’t moralise.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it is a war on the streets, with quite a substantial minority of the motorised traffic and if you haven’t done it for a living you won’t know IMO, although I except that a great number of cyclists experience abuse from some drivers on the way to and from work or alomost anytime, anywhere actually. The main point for me is that the automotive and petro-chemical industries with their promoters like Clarkson and BJ – that’s Boris Johnson BTW – are NEVER going to allow the cycling communities to knock them off their perch with their mates in government making sure that’s just the way things stay. And the way I see it is, if the law or the planners won’t keep me safe, then I will do whatever I think is necessary to ensure that I stay ahead of the sociopaths let loose in motorised metal boxes. The alleycat part of the film, which I had also seen many years ago was almost irrelevant in relation to the everyday. The government and the media don’t need a reason to hammer cyclists, they’re doing it every single day with impunity.

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    • Tim said:

      The pedestrians reeling back after trying to cross on a green man, some of them elderly, end up inadvertently taking part in this circus, although they have no choice in the matter and they are forced to accept the consequences.

      Bill is bang on. The only reason these riders get away with it is that not everyone behaves with such disregard for their fellow man. Skill has nothing to do with it.

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      • Mick Mack said:

        Well Tim if you don’t think there is any skill involved in alleycating as portrayed in LB’s film perhaps you ought to try replicating it and see how you get on. I’m not condoning alleycating, but nor am I condemning it. These people make their choice and live with the consequences. But again, you and others here are missing the point; the car is the problem; the car is the one that’s killing people – http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pX8zZdLw7cs Think about it.

        To TBickle. Bikeability is I believe a very good scheme that is already up and running. I have been cycling for over 40 years now and have been out twice with different Bikeability instructors and it was very good training. I’m not saying they would teach you anything, but for the overwhelming majority of cyclists and new to cycling cyclists it is of a very good quality.

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  4. blaize said:

    I dont know Bill… I agree with you on most points. But alley-cats are and will always be part of our community. You probably raced a few, maybe organized some others and it sadden me that the only thing that come out of this is a bad publicity for bike couriers again. I had the same impressions when watching Luca’s film and I also had the impression that he made money out of the guys risking their health (i.e. jobs if they’re messengers) for 5 minutes of fame. But what? No more alley-cats? No more running red light when you’re carrying a rush in your bag? Where are then the limits?

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    • I don’t know if Lucas has actually made a profit out of his films. I doubt it.

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      • blaize said:

        At 20$ a piece he has to make some kind of profits… Cash or just cover his expenses for traveling around the globe.

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      • In the Bicycling interview, he claims to have spent $80 000 on alleycats & filming. That means he would have to sell at least 4000 copies.

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  5. blaize said:

    He may or may not sell more then this, my point was it bother me when someone tries to get money out of my community! Ask Tokyo CMWC with their 15’000$ deficit they had to paid from their own pocket if it wasn’t for Luk and his benefit alley-cat… And here we get back on our feet. Benefit alley-cat for doing good. Not profit!

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    • I feel it’s worth pointing out that Lucas has made donations various bicycle messenger emergency funds. I agree with the general point, though.

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      • blaize said:

        I second that…

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  6. aende said:

    ‘He created the race, he encouraged the riders to go as fast they could, and he filmed it. Why?’

    They participated, after a wedge of cash was waved in front of them……The first thing on my mind would not have been this documentary as an outcome, to be fair.

    Essentially we are talking about 1 aspect of the documentary and 1 aspect of cycling, that is, in all reality very cool and ‘hip’. No matter how you feel about your personal connection to fixed/singlespeed / courier riding, it is a fashion statement now and the basis of entire sub culture. Kids love it, the whole scene delivers marketing power and ‘some’ brands want to be associated with it.

    Perhaps Lucas was cynical enough to exploit the marketability and get some great footage that he could then sell on to PR agencies for advertising, in the first instance.

    The documentary was a farce and does not represent anything that I have seen on the roads in over 25 years of racing and commuting considerable distances. There will be cyclists, there will be motorists and amongst both groups there will be idiots – sadly the documentary concentrated on a minority of idiots and the film makers fooled otherwise good people into thinking that the whole thing would be about safety….Well, there is also some naivety on the behalf of a few that did lend footage to the documentary….

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  7. Mick Mack said:

    OK, let me get this straight. The concern here is not that cyclists are getting fucked over by motorised road users, day in, day out as highlighted in this programme and that we want wholesale change to allow us to go about our business without fear of being taken down by some deranged reprobate, but in fact is all about the fact that LB might or might not have been paid for allowing to have a short clip of the London Calling Video included as almost a bit part in the programme. It might make a few hardcore couriers look a bit crazy in search of their fix amongst the general public and might be used by the likes of BJ to wag his finger and say I told you so, these people bring it on themselves, but it’s not as though the authorities were going to do the necessary anyhow, so what’ve we lost, not much I’d say.

    Or is there something I’m missing?

    We can be wilful, skillful, mad, bad and dangerous just like anybody else, but, and this is a huge but, we don’t go round killing people like the motorists do on a daily basis. I think we give them more credit than they deserve. This was a slightly risque little film that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know, offered no solutions and deserves to be forgotten for contributing nothing to the safety or wellbeing of cyclists of any persuasion.

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    • The programme, and its makers, are beneath contempt. I guess I feel the need to contextualise a little, because everyone at my place at work has asked me about it, an MP has spoken up about it, so it has created something of a splash.

      I agree with your sentiments and wrote somewhere else the following:

      “Ok, the bigger picture is that people get killed all the time on the roads without needing a unsanctioned bicycle racer to help them on their way. But it’s a subtle argument that doesn’t really fly in a 30 second sound-bite.”

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  8. aende said:

    This: ‘This was a slightly risque little film that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know, offered no solutions and deserves to be forgotten for contributing nothing to the safety or wellbeing of cyclists of any persuasion.’

    No one, who can make any political difference, will take any notice of the documentary, as it was based on cheap sensationalism and had no content that represents the 99% rest of the road users that are not idiots…..It is a shame as it could have been a tool for real progress, change, understanding around shared road space and perhaps encouraging a few more people to get on a bike….

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  9. Travis Bickle said:

    How about we as career cyclists, set up schools to teach people how to ride safely then.. We have the knowledge of knowing where to be on the road at any given point, why don’t we pass this knowledge on to those that want to learn how to ride on any road anywhere, safely.. I for one am well up for passing on my knowledge of cycling in London and the home counties. Lets give something good back rather than just bitch about some program that was devised by some nut who possibly has never ridden in traffic, let alone been on a bike.

    If we can teach just one person to not take the risks that we have taken that have left their mark on us physically, we have done good, if it is a class of 30 people that we can wise up to the fact that riding like a numpty will get them killed and they soak up this information, use it whilst they ride, we have done better, if after a year of teaching and not one student has had a crash involving vehicles, we have done our job. From what I know, the only schooling for cycling is how to ride the bike, not how to ride it from A to B.

    Who’s in ?

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    • C said:

      we already do this!
      i’m a cycling instructor – having previously worked both as a courier and a rickshaw rider in london – and this is what we do!

      we do sometimes teach complete beginners how to ride a bike for the first time.

      but the bulk of my work involves teaching people who can already ride, how to ride safely on-road. this training is sometimes marketed as ‘bikeability: cycling proficiency for the 21st century’ . every london borough has some kind of cycle training available, for both adults and children.

      level 1 training is off-road, improving control skills.
      levels 2 & 3 take place on-road, with the aim of giving riders the skills they need on increasingly busy/complicated roads. for someone to complete level 3, we would expect them to be able to deal confidently with major multi-lane junctions, eg elephant & castle, vauxhall etc.

      we also teach drivers.
      an increasing number of local authorities and other big organisations are now insisting that hgv/bus drivers contracted to work for them should have some kind of ‘cyclist awareness training’. when we do it, we get the drivers riding bikes themselves, and hopefully gaining a better understanding of why cyclists ride in the ways/ positions that they do.

      i thought it interesting that they made this whole programme about the supposed ‘war’ but didn’t bother to feature any of the ‘anti-war activists’ or some of the more radical ideas/ campaigns .

      lots of questions left unanswered in what was meant to be a hard-hitting programme.
      eg was there a police investigation into the incident involving a tanker driving into a scottish guy on a roundabout? this whole island is covered in cctv, and there aren’t that many white tankers on the roads… surely it wouldn’t have been too hard to figure out which one that was? or do the cops not care enough about this kind of thing?

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  10. veloevol said:

    He’s a pillock and he took the cash, Leopard and the BBC wouldn’t dare transmit uncleared footage.

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  11. @ Mick Mack (12:11 pm)

    I dare say that setting light to one’s farts while avoiding self-immolation takes a degree of skill, but it is still the behaviour of an utter cock. This is not a question of relative wrongs in which it is acceptable to refrain from condemning one wrong just because of the greater harm caused by another. That is an entirely vacuous argument.

    In any case, pedestrians do occasionally get killed by cyclists. Even if it were only one in a hundred years, we should still condemn fellow cyclists where their deliberate actions lead to injury and death.

    “People make their choice and live with the consequences”? What kind of sophistry is that? It is amorality, in which rights are everything and personal responsibility nothing. Put yourselves in the position of the pedestrians in that film, frightened out of their wits, and having to reel back to avoid being hit by a skilled but selfish and morally deficient twat on a bike.

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    • I know some of those guys, and I wouldn’t describe them as selfish or morally deficient. Just acting stupidly, and not thinking – I’m not excusing anything, but I don’t think it’s fair to take one or two seconds out of a person’s life, and judge the whole person by it.

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    • Mick Mack said:

      Go and lay down and take some time to breathe in and out. You’re getting worked up over nothing mate.

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  12. fish said:

    hey bill. i agree with you, and like you i think most of the old school messenger gang have been trying to keep our passtime activities out of the media.

    but.

    i was hanging with brendt and lucas earlier this year in milan. i heard them out and i also tried to question lucas’s nomination for the MCA. tho i didnt really dare to get my critics through to him. hes done a lot for the funds ofcourse, which kinda means nothing to european messengers, but still.
    as much as i enjoyed seeing the full lenght movie and see a lot friend who i was the only one in the theater to identify them almost all, i wonder why we have let this happen. its a problem of the new kids. who maybe became couriers after racing alleycats.

    anyway, downside of not participating in docu’s like war on britain’s roads, which we have seen just last week, is that no one hears our voice. and they can shamelessly depict couriers as insane lawbreakers and now all of britain hates us because there is no control or info or standpoints from a reasonable courier like papillon or yourself, bill. we need people out there who try to tell the truth.

    its kinda like lucas and the americans love to provoke people with this kinda footage. there is no reason other then inspire kids to ride bikes like we do. but its taking a counter effect. now we cant even ride our fixed gears in peace anymore and be safe with no brakes. we are criminals from all sides. according to the responses of everyone in the bbc docu. its killing the industry despite of all the good things you guys have been doing.

    i hope all of this makes sense. anyway good you spend some words on it.

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  13. For a far lighter side of cycling documentaries I have made you this: http://www.topboxmedia.co.uk/documentary/
    It has been broadcast across 3 continents in 2012 but the BBC turned it down. Probably for being ‘Too factual’.

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  14. I attempted to change this show in three ways; 1) I informed Leopard Films that I would only authorize the use of the footage if I got to approve the piece, 2) I did an interview with them where I repeatedly stated that my footage was professionally filmed and the riders were trained for this type of riding. Furthermore messengers avoid conflicts all costs, 3) I explained to the three people present at Leopard Films how our alleycat races and fast riding do not cause conflict and are not part of the problem.
    I have not seen the piece yet and am very anxious to since from the reactions on this blog it appears that my efforts did not help.

    To address Buffalo Bill’s question about money made the film cost me over $200,000 to make and I will never make that back and I don’t care. I care about showing people how to live by their own accord on the bike, how to ride safe and fast, and taking people paces they’ve never been before.

    Sincerely, Lucas Brunelle

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    • Aende said:

      Hi Lucas,
      So, it sounds like you were sold up the river. Can you enlighten us as to whether you actually approved the piece – thereby authorizing the footage used? If not, I would hope that you have sought legal counsel. The BBC have had a recent flurry of issues regarding poor journalism and I am sure that they would seek to clarify any misgivings regarding their programming.

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      • No I did not authorize the footage because I stipulated that I proof this before it shows. I always believe in getting people on the same side of the table as we are.

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      • Aende said:

        Whoa! So, Leopard productions have, effectively, breached contract by using unauthorised footage. I smell a lawsuit, if you are so inclined! Anyway, it is good to have the clarification and I would like to thank you for your input here. Have a good Christmas.

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      • thank you & happy new year to you too. my lawyer says i have a lawsuit but that bbc uses whatever and doesn’t check facts.

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    • Aende said:

      Happy New Year! As I understand it, through a barrister colleague that specializes in IP law; The BBC has very standardized contracts and do not deviate from their contracts – they have that kinda power to make other outlets adghere to contracts that really protect the BBC very well. So, I would guess that Leopard have breached their contract with you and that the BBC have nothing to do with it, essentially, the BBC could probably sue Leopard in this instance too as it is more than likely a breach of their contract with Leopard for not providing film that had been authorised for broadcast – nasty!
      Good luck for the New year.

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  15. Peter @redeader said:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/41324 can we sign this it might just help, some one some where ,,,,,,

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    • I find it difficult to sign a petition that badly spelt. Call me a pedant.

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      • WeekendRoadie said:

        *that’s. (Sorry, I’m a tool.)

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      • WeekendRoadie said:

        Or not! Whoops – dyslexic boy here should stick to cycling.

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