As Long as They Spell My Name Correctly: Truth, Fiction and Biopics

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How much can real people be fictionalized in the movies? Two recent films make that point — The Social Network and All Good Things. Though these movies often blend truth and fiction, the legal implications that can result are very real. This article will examine the privacy rights of those public figures whose lives are portrayed before the camera and in the written word. What legal defenses are available, and what is the likelihood of a favorable outcome for the real people in these cases?

The Social Network

The Social Network is generally regarded by moviegoers and critics as a terrific film. In the words of David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, it is "a compelling movie that maintains a taut sense of drama from its opening moments to the final scene." But one person central to the story is reported to be keeping his two thumbs pointing down. Mark Zuckerberg, according to press reports, has not exactly "friended" the film.

The movie is based on the book, Accidental Billionaires — The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, by Ben Mezrich. Neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook employees cooperated with Mezrich. The script was written by Aaron Sorkin, and he too had no access to Zuckerberg. According to Sorkin, this had no effect on him. He told New York magazine that he was more interested in telling a great yarn than in being scrupulously accurate. According to Sorkin, "What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy's sake, and can we not have the truth be the enemy of the good?"

If the movie were to be taken as fact, then one would believe that the creation story of Facebook begins with Zuckerberg's being dumped by his girlfriend. Just as there would be no Iliad or Odyssey had Helen stayed home with Menelaus, so too there would be no Facebook had Erica Albright stuck with Mark Zuckerberg. The movie portrays Zuckerberg somewhat unflatteringly, completely devoid of social skills yet overwhelmingly interested in climbing Harvard's elite social ladder. This approach appears to works well in setting up the irony of his becoming the greatest social networker of all times. The only problem: It's just not true.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Kirkpatrick answers "what's true in the Facebook movie." Although there's much in the movie that is accurate, the writers take significant literary license. Part of the drama unfolds with flashbacks and flash-forwards to depositions in two cases involving claims that other individuals were entitled to pieces of the rather large Facebook pie. Zuckerberg spends a great deal of time as a defendant in claims brought by others involved in the birth of Facebook.

The Winklevoss twins sued Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the concept of Facebook from them; the lawsuit eventually settled for $65 million in 2008. Zuckerberg's former close friend, Facebook co-founder and ex-CEO, Eduardo Saverin, recently launched a lawsuit against Zuckerberg after Zuckerberg allegedly reduced Saverin's share in the company following corporate disagreements. The lawsuit has since been settled.

The question posed here is what if Zuckerberg wanted to become a plaintiff? Or, to put it more broadly, what rights do subjects of unauthorized biographies have against their authors?

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