Premise Media Corp. and Rampant Films didn't obtain a license to use ''Imagine,'' the song by Ono's late husband, in ''Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,'' released April 18, according to a suit filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court.
''Defendants have intentionally and willfully used the song without authorization because they knew that they would likely be unable to secure permission,'' Ono, 75, said in the complaint filed along with British record label EMI Group Plc.
''Expelled'' criticizes U.S. educators for failing to teach children ideas that challenge Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, which is broadly accepted as fact by scientists. The filmmakers argue that so-called intelligent design is a viable explanation of how the universe works. It has been widely rejected in the scientific community.
In an e-mailed statement, Premise spokeswoman Megan Erhardt acknowledged that Ono didn't license the song for use in the film. She said the ''fair use'' legal doctrine entitles the public to ''freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism.'' The filmmakers have labeled the film a documentary.
''Unbiased viewers of the film will see that the 'Imagine' clip was used as part of a social commentary in the exercise of free speech and freedom of inquiry," Erhardt said.
Premise sought and received permission to use portions of other artists' songs, Ono said.
In addition to Premise, based in Dallas, and Rampant Films, located in Sherman Oaks, Calif., the suit names Salt Lake City-based distributor Rocky Mountain Pictures Inc.
Ron Rodgers, one of Rocky Mountain Pictures' principal partners, also cited the "fair use" doctrine in defending the song's inclusion in the film. He also said the movie's producers agreed to indemnify his company, a "distributor for hire," in any legal challenge to the film.
* SEAN P. MEANS contributed to this story.