Ka-chung! Ripped from the headlines — behold the actual legal implications of published real-person fictionalization! And what better source for this than Law and Order, the semi-official home of fictionalized legal and crime news.
In a November 2003 episode of original-flavor Law and Order, called Floater, a bald desi Manhattan attorney with the first name Ravi bribes a judge. In RL (for those of you not verbose in fanfiction/online gaming terms, this means real life), there is a bald desi Manhattan attorney with the first name Ravi who was investigated as part of a bribery case, but has never been charged.
The RL Ravi is suing under the theory of “libel-in-fiction”, claiming that all who watched the episode will assume that he is an actual briber. To put it more legally, RL Ravi must prove that the fictional Ravi has become so intertwined and unable to be distinguished so that the “defamatory material” has become an “aspect” of his real life.
At this preliminary stage (summary judgment), the judge said that Law and Order viewers
“would identify” this fictional Ravi-name lawyer “because of the uniqueness of [his] name, ethnicity and appearance.” And “because of the widespread media coverage of the [bribery] scandal, with which the accusations against [RL Ravi] were inextricably intertwined, it would be reasonable for a viewer to associate” him with the Law & Order character.
Law.com says that NBC Universal has said that “This episode, like all ‘Law & Order’ episodes, is fiction.”
However, it is clear from the marketing efforts surrounding Law & Order (do I need to say “ripped from the headlines” again?) that the basis of the show are news stories. Fictionalized. And as Christine Hurt states on the Conglomerate, many non-NYC lawyers wouldn’t have known about this story because it is New York-based story that seems to have remained local.
I automatically didn’t think of Chicago-former-TV-journalist Amy Jacobson when “the journalist who will hang out with a murder suspect in a bikini episode because she will do whatever it takes to get a story” starring Lara Flynn Boyle recently aired. But then again, if it was episode based on a bribery case involving sordid details and a government official, there are residents of several states that could possibly say — “Hey, that’s based on my governor/major!”
And the issue of how public is the real person, Mr. Ravi Batra, will be sure to be discussed in this case — is he more like an elected official or a movie star with everyone knowing details about his life? Or is he more like your average Joe (leaving aside that Joe or Josie likely has a Facebook/MySpace/blog online life) where private is more private? Or does the newsworthiness cancel out everything else? And are the similar details really unique? My guess is not individually — but the collective combination of facts matched up to “facts” will be determinative.
We’ll just have to wait for what the judge says — and considering there is no non-criminal Law and Order, I doubt Dick Wolf will be further fictionalizing this issue on his Laws and Orders.
(composite fanmade image from http://www.nbclawandorder.blogspot.com/)