Borat movie plaintiff not successful in image appropriation case

[Brian Beckham is a contributor to Internet Cases and can be contacted at brian.beckham [at] gmail dot com.]

Lemerond v. 20th Century Fox, No. 07-4635, 2008 WL 918579 (S.D.N.Y. March 31, 2008)

In the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the fictional Kazakh character (alter ego of comedian Sacha Cohen) journeys to America — all the while videotaping his interactions with unsuspecting people. One scene shows Borat greeting plaintiff Lemerond (“Hello nice to meet you. I’m new in town. My name a Borat”), then promptly running off in the opposite direction screaming (“Get away! What are you doing?”). (Those who have not seen the movie should note that the text does not capture the awkwardness of the exchange). The 13-second clip is shown twice in the full-length film, as well as in a movie trailer (but in the trailer the plaintiff’s face is blurred).

Plaintiff Lemerond filed suit under New York Civil Rights Law section 51 and New York common law for the unlawful use of his image. Defendant 20th Century Fox filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim. The court granted the motion.

Since New York does not recognize a common law right of privacy (the related right of publicity, like a trademark must be used in commerce to identify the source of goods or services — celebrities would normally enjoy such a right), the court decided the plaintiff’s suit on the basis of whether his likeness was used for “advertising purposes or purposes of the trade” without written permission. The most significant question was whether his appearance in the clips and trailer was for advertising purposes.

The court offered what might be considered a strained reading of the New York statute. It first cited to case law that held the statute was limited to “nonconsensual commercial appropriations of the name, portrait, or likeness of a living person.” It then pointed to another case which held that the nonconsensual use of a person’s image to depict “newsworthy events or matters of public interest” is protected by the statute. The court then quoted yet another case stating that this newsworthiness exception broadly covered “social trends, or any subject of public interest” and went on to observe that “public interest” and “newsworthy” have been defined in the most liberal and far reaching terms. Accordingly, the court found that Borat’s antics fit “squarely” within the newsworthiness / social commentary exception of the New York statute, stating that

[T]he movie employs as its chief medium a brand of humor that appeals to the most childish and vulgar in its viewers. As its core, however, Borat attempts an ironic commentary of ‘modern’ American culture…challeng[ing] its viewers to confront, not only the bizarre and offensive Borat character himself, but the equally bizarre and offensive reactions he elicits from ‘average’ Americans.

In a footnote, the court approvingly cited a 1970 case in pointing out that “the mere fact that defendants are spurred by the profit motive and engaged in the commercial exploitation of [a] motion picture does not negate their right to depict a matter of public interest or to advertise the picture by the showing of a ‘trailer’.”

Perhaps an open question is when, if ever, a New York news reporter or movie producer would need permission to use a non-celebrity’s image in his or her reporting, movie, or advertising, i.e., on a subject not necessarily in the public interest.

Be careful with email because your employer is “looking over your shoulder”

Workplace email policy destroyed attorney-client privilege

Scott v. Beth Israel Medical Center, — N.Y.S.2d —-, 2007 WL 3053351 (N.Y. Sup. October 17, 2007).

Dr. Scott, who used to work for Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, sued his former employer for breach of contract and a number of other different things. Before he was terminated, however, he had used his work email account to send messages to his attorneys, discussing potential litigation against Beth Israel.

When Dr. Scott found out that Beth Israel was in possession of these email messages, he asked the court to order that those messages be returned to him. He argued that they were protected from disclosure to Beth Israel under the attorney client privilege.

Beth Israel argued that they were not subject to the privilege because they were not made “in confidence.” There was an email policy in place that provided, among other things, that the computers were to be used for business purposes only, that employees had no personal right of privacy in the material they create or receive through Beth Israel’s computer systems, and that Beth Israel had the right to access and disclose material on its system.

Dr. Scott argued that New York law [CPLR 4548] protected the confidentiality. Simply stated, CPLR 4548 provides that a communication shouldn’t lose its privileged character just because it’s transmitted electronically.

The court denied Dr. Scott’s motion for a protective order, finding that the messages were not protected by the attorney client privilege.

It looked to the case of In re Asia Global Crossing, 322 B.R. 247 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) to conclude that the presence of the email policy destroyed the confidential nature of the communications. The policy banned personal use, the hospital had the right to review the email messages (despite Scott’s unsuccessful HIPAA argument), and Dr. Scott had notice of the policy.

The decision has implications for both individuals and the attorneys who represent them. Employees should be aware that when they are sending messages through their employer’s system, they may not be communicating in confidence. And attorneys sending email messages to their clients’ work email accounts, on matters not relating to the representation of the employer, must be careful not to unwittingly violate the attorney client privilege.

What’s more, although the decision is based on email communications, it could affect the results of any case involving instant messaging or text messaging through the company’s server.

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