Up until now, the only reason I had to care about The Help was the fact that Emma Stone is in it. But today, after reading about a lawsuit filed against the author of the book on which the film is based, I care slightly more. Why? Because it poses an interesting question: When is it OK for a book or film to use someone’s likeness?
Ablene Cooper, who worked for the brother of Kathryn Stockett, the book’s author, claims that one of protagonists, a maid named Aibileen, is based on her. She came to this conclusion after noting several similarities between her and the character, such as…
Considering that the author of the book knew Cooper, it’s not a stretch to believe that the similarities are more than coincidence. But is there enough for a lawsuit? After all, the name has been changed, and the book claims to be a work of fiction. Isn’t that enough to ward off this kind of legal trouble? Not necessarily.
According to Mark Litwak’s Entertainment Law Resources, there is no problem with basing a character off of a real individual, so long as the public cannot readily identify the individual in question. On his website, Litwak encourages writers to change the context surrounding their characters as well as their names in order to avoid any unwanted recognition. But aside from the name, Stockett failed to do this in The Help. Both Cooper and her fictional character share many defining characteristics, including location, profession, the loss of a son, and a particularly damning gold tooth.
However, another matter comes into play. Did this fictionalized portrayal of Cooper defame her in any way? Citing the case of Leopold v. Levin, in which convicted murderer Nathan Leopold sued the author of a fictionalized novel based on his case, Litwak claims that such a fictionalized portrayal would have to be highly offensive to meet the “standard for determining invasion of privacy.” Although Cooper’s lawyers are pointing to a scene in which the character of Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a roach, the idea that the film is somehow defaming Cooper is tough to swallow.
Other questions remain which bring Cooper’s motives into doubt. For starters, it would seem that the one-year statute of limitations has already run out. Second, why is she only seeking $75,000? Third, the fact that Cooper waited until the film was released to start making a fuss is somewhat suspect. But no matter how it plays out, one thing is certain: I would rather bash my head into a brick wall than sit through this movie.
(Source: ABC News)