Often writers base characters on complete fiction, drawing from their imagination to build a character’s various facets.  However, on certain occasions a writer may base a character on a living person.  Sometimes such a portrayal is factual and other times it may be a combination of fact and fiction.  Such was the case, claimed legendary actress Olivia de Havilland, in her lawsuit against FX Networks over her portrayal in the FX docudrama Feud: Bette and Joan.

Feud told the tale of the infamous silver screen ongoing battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  De Havilland claimed that Catherine Zeta-Jones’s portrayal of her in the show (which lasted all of 17 minutes) violated her right of publicity because she did not give the creators of Feud permission to use her name or identity.  Additionally, de Havilland also claimed that FX portrayed her in a false light by taking certain creative liberties with the story (namely, the inclusion of a fictitious interview and the de Havilland character’s reference to her sister as a “bitch” when in fact the term she actually used was “dragon lady”).

At the trial court, FX filed a motion to strike the complaint based on California’s anti-SLAPP statute.  The trial court denied FX’s motion.  The trial court’s ruling presented a Catch-22 for those choosing to portray real persons in creative works.  If the portrayal is done accurately and realistically (and without permission) this is grounds for a right of publicity lawsuit; if the portrayal is more creative or entirely fictitious, this could be grounds for a false light claim if the person portrayed doesn’t like the portrayal.

FX appealed to the California Court of Appeals.  In a lengthy opinion, the court reverses the trial court’s decision and dismissed de Havilland’s case.  By all means, the opinion is a clear endorsement of the First Amendment rights of television producers (and other creatives).

The First Amendment Trumps de Havilland’s Right of Publicity.

The court doesn’t answer the question whether a docudrama is a product or merchandise within the meaning of Civil Code section 3344.  Rather, the court assumes “for argument’s sake that a television program is a ‘product, merchandise, or good’ and that Zeta-Jones’s portrayal of de Havilland constitutes a ‘use’ of de Havilland’s name or likeness within the scope of both the right of publicity statute and the misappropriation tort.”  Feud, the court notes, “is speech that is fully protected by the First Amendment, which safeguards the storytellers and artists who take the raw materials of life — including the stories of real individuals, ordinary or extraordinary — and transform them into art, be it articles, books, movies, or plays.”  The fact that FX did not purchase or otherwise procure de Havilland’s “rights” to her name or likeness did not change the court’s analysis.  The court stated that film and television producers may enter into rights agreements with individuals for a variety of reasons, however, “the First Amendment simply does not require such acquisition agreements.”

De Havilland Did Not Show That She Would Likely Prevail on Her False Light Claim.

A false light claim is a type of invasion of privacy, based on publicity that places a person in the public eye in a false light that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and where the defendant knew or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the aggrieved person would be placed.  A false light claim is equivalent to a libel claim, and its requirements are the same as a libel claim, including proof of malice.  In order to prevail on her claim, de Havilland had to demonstrate that FX broadcast statements that were (1) assertions of fact, (2) actually false or create a false impression about her, (3) highly offensive to a reasonable person or defamatory, and (4) made with actual malice.

First, the court questioned whether a reasonable viewer would interpret Feud as entirely factual. The court noted that “[v]iewers are generally familiar with dramatized, fact-based movies and miniseries in which scenes, conversations, and even characters are fictionalized and imagined.”  Next, the court concluded that Feud’s depiction of de Havilland is not defamatory nor would it highly offend a reasonable person.  Granting an interview at the Academy Awards, the court noted, is not conduct that would cause offense to reasonable persons.  Further, the court found the producer’s substitution of the word “bitch” for “dragon lady” in a statement actually made by de Havilland was an un-actionable substantial truth – a statement that would not have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the truth would have produced.

Lastly, because de Havilland is a public figure, she had to show that the statements made by FX were made with actual malice.  This means more than showing that the statements were not true.  Fiction is by definition untrue and “[p]ublishing a fictitious work about a real person cannot mean the author, by virtue of writing fiction, has acted with actual malice.”  Rather, the court said, “de Havilland must demonstrate that FX either deliberately cast her statements in an equivocal fashion in the hope of insinuating a defamatory import to the [viewer], or that [FX] knew or acted in reckless disregard of whether its words would be interpreted by the average [viewer] as defamatory statements of fact.”  The court concluded that de Havilland would be unable to meet this burden.

In dismissing de Havilland’s case, the Appeals court acknowledged the Catch-22 the trial court’s decision created for producers and other creatives and found it inconsistent with the First Amendment.  The right of publicity does not give celebrities the “right to control the [their] image by censoring disagreeable portrayals.”

But the show isn’t over yet.  De Havilland filed a petition with the California Supreme Court to reverse the decision by the Appeals Court and allow her case to proceed to trial.  De Havilland claimed that the Court of Appeals misapplied the balancing test between the First Amendment and the right of publicity formulated by the Supreme Court in the 2001 case of Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc.  While it’s uncertain whether the Supreme Court will agree to hear the matter, if it does, a ruling in de Havilland’s favor could be very disruptive for producers who wish to create a work of fiction based on true events and portraying real persons.