22 February 2016Copyright

First Amendment protects ‘The Hurt Locker’ from publicity rights claim

Academy Award-winning film “The Hurt Locker” is protected by the First Amendment and did not infringe a US soldier’s publicity rights, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled.

Jeffrey Sarver, a retired US soldier, complained that the 2009 film depicted his experiences in Iraq as an explosive ordnance disposal technician and that the unflattering episodes of the film defamed his character.

Sarver filed the lawsuit shortly after the film was released.

The film’s screenplay was written by Mark Boal. Boal travelled to Iraq and subsequently published an account of Sarver’s experience in the 2005 August/September issue of Playboy magazine. A condensed version of Boal’s account also appeared in Reader’s Digest.

“The Hurt Locker” centres on the experience of fictional bomb disposal technician Will James. In the film, James is obsessed with war and is depicted as an uninterested father.

In the complaint, filed at the US District Court for the Northern District of California, Sarver said the film mirrors his own experience and that he did not consent to the use of his life story.

In 2010, the film won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The California court rejected Sarver’s claim in 2012, prompting him to appeal against the decision.

But on February 17, the ninth circuit affirmed the decision, stating that the events in the Iraq war depicted in the film were in the public interest and protected by the First Amendement.

"In sum, 'The Hurt Locker' is speech that is fully protected by the First Amendment," the ruling said.

“This focus on the conduct of the Iraq war satisfies California’s standards for determining whether an issue is one of public concern. That war, its dangers, and soldiers’ experiences were subjects of longstanding public attention," it added.

The court concluded: “Indeed, ‘The Hurt Locker’, with its unique focus on improvised explosive device disposal teams, contributed to that attention. That the film won several Oscars [Academy Awards] and reached widespread audiences only buttresses our conclusion. The film and the narrative of its central character James speak directly to issues of a public nature.”

On the question of defamation, the three-judge panel rejected Sarver’s claim. The panel said that James was a “heroic figure, albeit one struggling with internal conflicts” who “exhibits compassion” for Iraqi victims of the war.

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