4 August 2014 4 min read

It seems that for Scarlett Johansson, imitation is certainly not the sincerest form of flattery. This month, a court in Paris ordered successful French Novelist Gregorie Delacourt to pay damages for his ‘hurtful and demeaning depiction’ of Scarlett Johansson in his book, ‘La première chose qu’on regarde’, or ‘The First Thing We Look At’.

No tributes, please

As the book is apparently a satire on celebrity culture, you may expect a scathing depiction of Hollywood stars such as Miss Johansson. Yet, Mr Delacourt said this was in fact a ‘tribute’ to her beauty, as the main character is a model that is described as Johansson’s ‘doppelganger’. Unfortunately for Mr Delacourt, the star didn’t quite see it as a tribute, and sought an original sum of €50,000 in damages, and an injunction to stop it being translated or adapted for cinema. 

Despite Miss Johansson being named ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ twice by Esquire magazine, and ‘Sexiest Celebrity’ by Playboy, she rebuked the fact the book presented her as a ‘sex object’. This reaction was seemingly a surprise to the defendants, as whilst his publishers said the suit was “crazy” as there is ”no doubt it’s about Jeanine Foucamprez, the main character”, it would seem Mr Delacourt was quite personally disappointed, as he awkwardly thought “she’d get in contact to ask me to go for a coffee with her.” The proposed injunction was thrown out of court, but Miss Johansson won €2500 in damages, successfully arguing that the book made ‘fraudulent use of her name, fame and image’ for commercial gain.

Creativity v Legality

Cases such as these raise questions in this area of defamation law – how far should a writer be able to go when writing about other people? It would seem the answer varies in different jurisdictions, as had Miss Johansson raised her case in the US, it could have been a different story. Lloyd Jassin, a New York intellectual property and publishing lawyer, states that “The First Amendment steps in” in the U.S, as if the use of the name is not for a commercial purpose then the publisher retains a right to freedom of expression. 

Yet, as noted by Jassin, ‘personality rights’ – whereby the individual has the right to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, identity etc. – are taken “much more seriously” in Europe. The issue of personality rights in France, as protected by Article 9 of the French Civil Code, has seen authors such as Christine Agnot pay two separate settlements of €40,000 and €10,000 to her boyfriends ex-lover after ‘pillaging her private life’. 

These issues prove just as costly in the UK, as seen when author Francis King wrote about his neighbour, former Labour MP Tom Skeffington Lodge, in his novel ‘A Domestic Animal’. Although King thought he would be safe in making the unflattering version of his neighbour a woman, Skeffington Lodge recognized the similarities and proceeded with legal action. To make the situation even more uncomfortable, King wrote an apology letter to Skeffington Lodge admitting to basing the character on him much to the delight of the plaintiff’s counsel – all topped by the fact he had to sell his house in Brighton just to pay for the legal costs. 

Whilst it’s important to be on the right side of publishing law, it’s just as important to maintain your creativity and imagination – it’s hard finding the balance of not ending up in the position of Francis King, yet not letting your work be significantly altered by men in suits that you don’t really know. 

At Hybrid Legal, we think that legal support for your creative business doesn’t need to come with a suit and a tie. We will be happy to discuss the important legal issues that face authors when undertaking their work, yet whilst ensuring that you can continue to do what you do best. Why not contact us today to book your free consultation to discuss your legal requirements in further detail, we’ll be delighted to talk to you.

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Alan Reid

Alan brings a wealth of director level, leadership and management experience to Hybrid.

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