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California District Court Dismisses “Tiger King” Case, Citing First Amendment Interests

After captivating home-bound viewers earlier this year, Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” had its day in court recently when a California district judge dismissed a case brought by the publisher of Hollywood Weekly Magazine (“HW”) against the producers and distributors of the show.  See Prather Jackson v. Netflix, Inc., Case No. 2:20-cv-06354-MCS-GJS (C.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2020).  The magazine complained that Netflix had used two of its trademarks in the show: (1) the magazine’s name, and (2) “Tiger King,” a term which HW claimed that it had coined in 2013 when it published a series of articles that profiled Joseph Maldonado-Passage a/k/a Joe Exotic, who is now widely known as the Tiger King.  On Netflix’s motion to dismiss, Judge Mark C. Scarsi of the Central District of California determined that First Amendment interests in the expressive work “Tiger King” outweighed HW’s Lanham Act claims.

The dismissal adds to a growing body of case law stemming from the Second Circuit’s 1989 decision in Rogers v. Grimaldi.  In that case, actress and dancer Ginger Rogers asserted Lanham Act claims against the producers and distributors of a film entitled “Ginger and Fred”; the court considered how the Lanham Act should be construed so that it does not intrude on First Amendment values.  The Second Circuit adopted a test to determine when the Lanham Act should apply to artistic or express works—namely, when the use has “no artistic relevance to the underlying work whatsoever,” or when it “explicitly misleads as to the source or the content of the work.”  Though the use in question before the Rogers court was the name of a celebrity in the title of a film, the Second Circuit’s test has been extended to apply when a Lanham Act claim is asserted against a use of a trademark within an expressive work. 

As the Ninth Circuit adopted the Rogers test in 2002, the California district court was obliged to apply it to HW’s four Lanham Act claims for trademark infringement of its two marks, dilution, and false designation of origin, and in doing so, rejected HW’s arguments.  Applying the first  “artistic relevance” factor, the court considered the use of term “Tiger King” as both the title of Netflix’s documentary and within scenes throughout the film.  Notably, the term was used to refer to Joe Exotic, as he himself used it on merchandise, in the name of his reality television show, and in his short-lived campaign for president, which the documentary detailed.  The series also depicted issues of the magazine, bearing HW’s name, as Joe Exotic proudly showed off the articles that dubbed him the “Tiger King.”  As artistic relevance is a low threshold—the use of the mark need only have “some relevance” to the work—the court determined that this prong was easily met, because the documentary chronicles the life and business of Joe Exotic, who is publicly known as the Tiger King.

For the second prong of the test, the court considered whether Netflix’s use of the unregistered “Tiger King” mark would make the public believe that HW was somehow behind the documentary or sponsored the work. Because the question is whether the work explicitly misleads—or as the Rogers court put it, the work contains an “explicit indication,” “overt claim,” or “explicit misstatement”—the court was not satisfied by HW’s inability to point to any statement in the series that explicitly misled about the sponsorship of the documentary.  In its complaint, HW relied upon conclusory legal statements, rather than any allegations of explicit deception that would satisfy the second prong of the Rogers test.  The court applied the same analyses on the first and second prongs for the “Tiger King” mark to the HW mark and determined that Netflix’s use of the magazine’s name in the series did not give rise to actionable Lanham Act claims.

Additionally, the court dismissed HW’s copyright infringement claim over Netflix’s depiction of certain issues of the magazine, citing the deficiencies in HW’s allegations regarding what works their cited registrations covered and which parts of the copyrights Netflix infringed.  Though Netflix had also briefed a fair use argument for this claim, the court did not reach it since it determined that HW’s copyright infringement claim failed on the face of HW’s pleading.

Although HW can assert Lanham Act claims regardless of the federal registration status of its two trademarks, it is worth noting that HW is also facing an uphill battle with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (“USPTO”) over the registration of the “Tiger King” mark, which has become quite popular over the past year.  Notably, while HW claimed to have coined the term in 2013, it did not file for federal registration until July 2020 after the Netflix series had debuted and a host of others had already filed applications for the same mark.  HW is currently facing an office action from the USPTO, which is refusing registration on numerous grounds including the words Tiger King’s failure to function as a trademark.

The dismissal in this case is the latest decision in a robust and growing line of case law balancing First Amendment interests against Lanham Act claims.  As most courts have adopted the Rogers test (or some iteration thereof), the “Tiger King” decision provides further armaments to litigants facing Lanham Act claims for their use of a mark or other protected designation in an expressive work.  Clients clearing rights in expressive works should remember to consider the Rogers test, in addition to other commonly used doctrines like classic or nominative fair use and, when in doubt, seek legal counsel.

New York Enacts a Post-Mortem Right of Publicity Law and Addresses Deep Fakes

Joining the majority of states, New York recently enacted a new right of publicity statute that extends the right past death.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation on November 30, 2020, establishing a right of publicity (N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 50-f) for deceased persons (and their descendants) domiciled in New York to protect against the commercial exploitation of the person’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness after death.  However, unlike other post-mortem right of publicity laws that are broader in reach, New York’s statute carries a caveat—the post-mortem right only protects persons whose rights of publicity have commercial value either at the time of their death or because of their death.

In addition to the “commercial value” requirement, which the legislation employs by providing a definition of the qualifying person who is referred to as a “deceased personality,” Section 50-f also contains a few other restrictions.  Notably, the law only protects qualifying deceased personalities for a period of forty years after death.  As the legislation also makes clear, the statute will not have retroactive effect, and will not take effect until May 29, 2021. 

The legislation leaves New York’s other rights of privacy/publicity statutes for living persons—N.Y. Civ. Rights Law § 50 and § 51—untouched yet goes further than Section 50, by extending the right to protect against exploitation of a deceased person’s “likeness, whereas the statute applicable to the living only protects “name, portrait or picture.”  Additionally, the statute is one of the first to restrict “deep fakes” and provides protections to “deceased performer[s],” which is broadly defined, against deceptive use of their “digital replica[s] in a scripted audiovisual work as a fictional character or for the live performance of a musical work.”  Disclaimer language can be used to avoid liability.

The new post-mortem statute provides that these rights may be transferred by contract, license, trust, or will, but successors in interest must register the right with the Secretary of State in order to be able to bring a claim.  Section 50-f also includes provisions authorizing statutory damages of $2,000, in addition to profit awards from attributable unauthorized use and punitive damages, but no attorneys’ fees.

Notably, the statute contains specific exceptions to provide First Amendment breathing room, for both newsworthy and expressive works.  As New York is home to many entertainment, broadcasting, publishing, sports, and arts industries, specific exemptions cover the publication of literary, educational, and other audio-visual and creative works for broad purposes including political, public interest, and newsworthy uses, such as for comment, criticism, parody, or satire.  Significantly, for the television and film industry, it clearly protects documentaries, docudramas, and historical or biographical works, regardless of the degree of fictionalization.

The enactment of Section 50-f is a win for celebrities, unions, and advocacy groups that have led efforts to expand the state’s right of publicity law to provide post-mortem rights, while at the same time giving the entertainment industry clear carve-outs from liability.  New York has for a long time remained a notable holdout, while other states have passed expansive descendible statutory rights of publicity, treating the right as a property right, transferable at death instead of a personal right that expires at death.  As New York does not recognize common law protection for rights of publicity, the passage of an enhanced statutory right was necessary to permit recognition of post-mortem rights in the state, which first passed its statutory right of publicity bill for living persons in 1904.

New York Passes Anti-SLAPP Legislation to Protect Speech Rights

On November 10, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed into law a robust expansion to New York’s existing anti-SLAPP legislation, in a significant effort to curb lawsuits filed with the goal of intimidating and suppressing free speech. Amending New York’s current statute—Sections 70-a and 76-a of the New York Civil Rights Law—the law addresses the problem of “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” which threaten burdensome, costly, and time-consuming litigation in order to chill defendants’ speech.

Although New York has had anti-SLAPP legislation on the books since 1992, its provisions were narrow, protecting only against lawsuits brought by a “public applicant or permittee” against defendants who had spoken out against an application or permit, such as a real estate developer that sued a citizen who opposed a project. Under the prior enactment, free speech in a broader context was unprotected, leaving defendants who work within the media or entertainment fields without much recourse against speech intimidation suits, a particularly troubling oversight for the nation’s media capital.

However, the signing of the new legislation, which passed the New York legislature in July, broadens New York’s approach considerably, bringing it into line with a growing number of states, including California, Nevada, Georgia, Colorado, Oregon, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, as well as Washington D.C., that have also worked to enact or strengthen anti-SLAPP laws. New York’s law now covers any speech or other lawful First Amendment conduct that relates to an issue of public interest. The law specifically applies to “any communication in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest” or “any other lawful conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with an issue of public interest, or in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition.” The law commits to broad speech protection, providing that “public interest” should be broadly construed to mean any subject other than a purely private matter.

In practice, the New York law provides defendants an effective, powerful tool by allowing them to file an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss. Upon such a motion, the court must stay discovery, as well as pending hearings and motions while it makes its determination, although a court may order limited discovery to allow a plaintiff to respond to the motion. During this time, a court must also consider supporting and opposing affidavits—meaning that a defendant need not solely base his or her motion to dismiss on the pleadings or items for judicial notice—and a court must grant preference in the hearing of the anti-SLAPP motion. A judge must dismiss a case where a defendant has shown that the claim surrounding his or her speech or conduct lacks “a substantial basis in law or is [not] supported by a substantial argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” In such cases, the plaintiff must cover the defendant’s legal fees. These provisions undercut the luster of SLAPP lawsuits in the first instance, as defendants can potentially stop a case early in its tracks—filing a motion to dismiss prior to discovery, in fact—and saddle plaintiffs with mandatory fees, should the motion be successful.

Although it remains to be seen how the law will be interpreted and carried out by New York courts in practice, other states with similar anti-SLAPP laws provide some guidance. For instance, other states to consider the meaning of “public forum” under their legislation have extended the designation to websites accessible to the public, as well as blogs and email listservs. California courts have held that determining whether a communication has been made in connection with an issue of public interest requires a consideration of the context of the statement, as well as its content. Litigants in other states have invoked anti-SLAPP statutes in a wide variety of cases, from business disparagement and tortious interference with contract or business relations to false light, false advertising, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract.

One of the bill’s drafters commented that it was indeed President Trump who had provided an impetus for the bill, considering his history of filing frivolous lawsuits against critics, in order to harass, intimidate, and bankrupt them. With the law’s signing this November, New York is poised to curb such meritless litigation and may serve as a model for other states, as it ascends the ranks to have one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws nationwide.

SDNY Judge Dismisses “Hustlers” Invasion of Privacy and Defamation Claims

By: Sara Gates


In an opinion rife with references to adult entertainment and drugs, a judge in the Southern District of New York recently dismissed an invasion of privacy and defamation case over a plaintiff’s apparent depiction in the 2019 film “Hustlers.”  See Barbash v. STX Financing, LLC, Case No. 1:20-cv-00123-DLC (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 10, 2020).  For the uninitiated, the film was based on a 2015 article in New York Magazine that described a scheme undertaken by a group of adult entertainment hosts and dancers at two clubs in Manhattan who allegedly drugged patrons and stole large sums of money while they were incapacitated.  The plaintiff, Samantha Barbash, along with several others were charged for their roles in the scheme, and Barbash ultimately pled guilty to conspiracy, assault, and grand larceny. 

Though Barbash herself spoke with the New York Magazine reporter, and later gave other interviews, and published a memoir on the subject, she did not consent to Jennifer Lopez’s depiction of her character in “Hustlers,” so she filed suit against the producers and distributors of the film earlier this year for invasion of privacy, under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51, over the use of her identity, likeness, and character in the film and marketing materials.  She also alleged that six statements and scenes in the film, primarily regarding the preparation and possession of various drug cocktails, were defamatory. 

On the defendants’ motion to dismiss, District Judge Denise Cote considered whether New York’s statutory right to protect an individual’s “name, portrait, picture and voice” from commercial appropriation—in the absence of a common law right, which New York does not recognize—also protects an individual’s likeness and character.  Looking at the legislative intent that the statute be construed narrowly, and prior case law, the court determined that Barbash’s allegations in her amended complaint that the film’s use of her likeness and character was insufficient to support a claim under N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51.

Turning to the defamation claim, the court considered whether Barbash had alleged the requisite elements for such a claim, focusing on (1) whether the film was “concerning the plaintiff,” (2) whether the statements and scenes were false, and (3) whether, as the defendants argued, Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would require her to allege a higher burden of fault.  For the first point, the court questioned whether the plaintiff is recognizable in the film, such that someone who knows her would be able to make her out.  Based on the allegations in the amended complaint, which the court accepted as true on the motion to dismiss, this element was satisfied. 

For the second point, the court evaluated each of the six statements, one by one, to determine whether Barbash alleged that the statements were “substantially” false, given that “substantial truth” or that the overall gist or substance of the statement is true, is the benchmark to avoid defamation liability in New York.  Five of the statements (and accompanying scenes) were drug-related, namely, alleging that the character (1) concocted, (2) manufactured, (3) possessed, (4) used, and (5) provided drugs to individuals without consent.  The sixth statement concerned the character’s personality, describing her as cold and indifferent.  As the court was able to take judicial notice of Barbash’s guilty plea, in which she pled guilty to conspiracy for providing victims with illegal drugs to gain control of their credit cards, the court determined that her provision of drugs to unconsenting victims was substantially true, and drug possession could be inferred, so these two statements could not support a defamation claim.  The court also determined that the sixth statement regarding the character’s personality was non-actionable opinion.  The court, however, could not make a determination about the other drug-related statements at this early stage in the case.

Finally, the court turned to the question of whether Barbash was a limited-purpose public figure, which would heighten the level of fault that Barbash would need to prove in order to succeed on her defamation claim.  For private persons, a plaintiff litigating a defamation claim in New York (and most other jurisdictions, for that matter), need only show that the defendant was negligent in making the alleged defamatory statement.  For celebrities and public figures, however, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant had acted with “actual malice” (i.e., knowledge that statements were false or reckless disregard as to their falsity) in making the statement.  The higher burden for public figures serves an important First Amendment purpose and provides breathing room so that people and publishers may engage in free public debate about people in the public eye, that may include some inadvertently false factual assertions without being subject to liability (and, consequently, chilling free speech).  Actual malice has also been applied in limited circumstances to private persons who become limited-purpose public figures where they voluntarily inject themselves into a public controversy or issue, seek media attention, and assume a position of prominence in relation to the particular issue.

Arguing for dismissal of the defamation claim, the defendants asserted that, based on Barbash’s criminal conduct, in which she voluntarily injected herself into the public arena, she should be treated as a limited-purpose public figure.  The court agreed, relying on Barbash’s 2015 guilty plea, her continued cooperation with the press, including for the 2015 New York Magazine article and 2019 and 2020 Vanity Fair articles after the film was released, both of which included portraits of Barbash, and her 2020 memoir on the events depicted in the film.  In opposition, Barbash argued that she should not be required to meet the higher standard because she was unwillingly dragged into the public arena, and that her later interviews were an attempt to set the record straight.  The court disagreed, noting that while Barbash is entitled to tell her side of the story, her engagement rendered her a limited-purpose public figure.  As such, Barbash would have had to plead actual malice, which she did not do in her amended complaint.  For these reasons, the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss without resolving whether the remaining statements were legally defamatory.

The Barbash decision adds to a growing body of case law in the Southern District on the proper application of N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50 and § 51 and the analysis of defamation claims involving films based on prior public articles or records.  Barbash confirms that New York’s right of privacy statute remains limited in scope. As to defamation, the plaintiff’s use of the media worked against her, as it provided grounds for the defendants to argue that she rose to the level of a limited-purpose public figure.  That may not be available in every case involving prior reports and guilty pleas, especially where the individual did not continue to make themselves available to the media. 

In any case involving the use of a person’s likeness and character, filmmakers, producers, and distributors should ensure that they are consulting counsel about rights and clearances, especially because other states’ right-of-publicity laws may have a broader statute or recognize common law privacy rights, and courts in other parts of the country will likely have diverse views on who constitutes a public figure for purposes of defamation. 


“The Good Lord Bird” Trailer Just Released

CDAS represented producer Blumhouse in its deal to acquire rights to the James McBride book, the deal with Ethan Hawke (who stars as abolitionist John Brown), and the deal with Showtime where the miniseries will premiere on August 9. Watch the trailer here.

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