No Misappropriation by ‘Wolf of Wall Street' Movie(1)

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

Oct. 5 — Based-on-a-true-story film “The Wolf of Wall Street” did not violate the personality rights of a real-life former associate of convicted swindler Jordan Belfort under New York law, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled Sept. 30 (Greene v. Paramount Pictures Corp., E.D.N.Y., No. 2:14-cv-01044-JS-SIL, 9/30/15).

The 2013 Paramount Pictures film starring Leonardo DiCaprio was based on the criminal exploits of Belfort, which he wrote about in a 2007 memoir.

Andrew “Wigwam” Greene, who worked with Belfort from 1993 to 1996, alleged that the appearance of a character in the film—Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff as portrayed by actor P.J. Byrne—violated his personality rights under N.Y. Civ. Rights Law §§50-51.

In some states this type of right is often called a “right of publicity,” but in New York, it is part of the state's privacy rights statute.

Greene had argued that certain traits of the Koskoff character that matched up with his own traits and background made the character an unauthorized commercial misappropriation of his identity.

For example, in the film, Koskoff was mocked for his habit of wearing a bad toupee, just as Greene said he had been in real life.

However, the court ruled that the character's “physical resemblance to him and their toupees, viewed in conjunction with their similar backstories and relative positions” at Belfort's company, were not enough to trigger a claim.

“Merely suggesting certain characteristics of the plaintiff, without literally using his or her name, portrait, or picture, is not actionable under the statute,” the court said, quoting from Allen v. Nat'l Video, Inc., 610 F. Supp. 612 (S.D.N.Y. 1985).

Thus, the court said, New York state courts had not allowed such claims “even if the depiction at issue evokes some characteristics of the person or the person is identifiable by reference to external sources.”

The court thus granted Paramount's motion to dismiss the privacy law claim. The court's ruling was issued by Judge Joanna Seybert.

Greene was represented by the Law Office of Aaron M. Goldsmith P.C., New York. Paramount Pictures was represented by Leopold, Petrich & Smith P.C., Los Angeles.

Source Material:

Greene v. Paramount Pictures Corp.

Complaint:
Feb. 18, 2014