Oprah’s Company Sued Over Film
Melvin B. Tolson’s family is lawyering up again, attempting to sue over the 2007 film, The Great Debaters, according to a report. The family has taken legal action against Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, The Weinstein Company and MGM, claiming they were not compensated.
Tolson was a professor at historically black Wiley College who in the 1930s, amidst segregation, led the school’s debate team to a national championship. His family, through the representative David Wayne Semien, has now filed a lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, The Weinstein Company, and MGM, alleging they were “not compensated in any monetary way for the defendants’ commercial use of Mr. Tolson’s name, distinctive attributes, and unique life experiences.”
To prevail on a complaint filed in Louisiana federal court, the Tolson family is going to need some awesome debate skills because they will surely encounter arguments about limiting free expression.
According to the complaint, when the film was being made, Tolson’s son offered producers assistance in the form of recordings of their father for the purpose of Washington’s study. Later, the family was invited and did attend the film’s premiere. Harpo staffers allegedly told the family, “We are going to take care of you.”
“In so doing, defendants dissuaded the plaintiffs from hiring a lawyer and exploited the plaintiffs’ lack of business experience and relative lack of education, as well as their trust in their understanding of the character (mis)represented by Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and the defendants,” states the complaint.
The family allegedly later attempted to contact Winfrey, but never got in touch. “Life rights” refers to the notion that a movie studio has some obligation to get the consent of an individual if that person’s name and life experiences are to be adapted into a television show or feature film. However, there’s no explicit law providing that. Instead, there are some state laws protecting one’s name or likeness from being commercially misappropriated.
The family did appear to cooperate in some capacity, as they provided recordings of Melvin B. Tolson, which may constitute an implied consent of his posthumous rights.
The family is also only suing now, a decade after The Great Debaters was released. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that lengthy delay doesn’t necessarily doom a copyright lawsuit or just this week a patent lawsuit, the application of laches (unfair prejudice by delay) may still be available to defendants in a right-of-publicity case.