The book “MEU NOME NÃO É JONHNY” is based on the life story of João Guilherme Estrela, an upper middle class young guy, who goes from drug user to a relatively famous drug dealer and is finally arrested spending years in prison.
The story was later adapted into a movie and became a huge success in Brazil as it portrays the sad reality of young people involvement’s with drugs and the consequent moral degradation which unfortunately still confronts many families in the country.
Although the book and the film are centered in the story of João Estrela and the book has a disclaimer explaining that “the real name of the characters were changed in order to guarantee their privacy and personal security” one of the real persons behind the characters has filed suit for violation of privacy against both the publisher and the author of the book.
The real person behind the character named Alex in the book claimed that, despite the change of name, the book contains several passages with facts about his life, including a conversation with João Estrela about his sexual life after becoming paraplegic, which allows his easy identification.
The State Court of Appeals of Rio de Janeiro, analyzing an appeal against the dismissal of the case in first instance, had to confront the constitutional rights of freedom of expression and of the press (the book was written by a journalist named Guillerme Fiuza) with the right of privacy.
The trial judge decided to dismiss the action based on the defense that all the facts in the book were real and that the whole case was very famous so that the prevailing rights should be the right of information to society and freedom of expression.
The State Court of Appeals noted the importance of the freedom of expression and the social importance of the work as a chronic of the many problems which families have due to the involvement of young persons with drugs.
However, the Court observed that the author and publishers have only obtained consent from the main character and by doing so assumed the risks of causing damage to third parties.
Further, the commercial exploitation of the work which became a movie of huge success and the inclusion on the book of facts about the sexual life of the plaintiff apparently moved the Court to determine the payment of indemnification based on damages to the moral rights of the plaintiff due to violation of its privacy rights in the amount of R$10.000,00 (ten thousand reais) or, approximately, US$ 6,000.00 (six thousand dollars).
The request for economic damages was denied by the Court which considered that the objective of the book was not to portray the life of the plaintiff but that of the main character João Estrela.
Appeals for the Superior Court of Justice and/or the Supreme Court are still possible.
Well, this decision highlights the importance of thinking about these issues from the beginning and seeking advice of a lawyer to review the book or movie especially in light of possible privacy issues which will attract a greater level of scrutiny from the courts.
The mere change of names may not be sufficient to avoid liability especially if the real person is clearly identifiable in the context of the work.
Rodrigo Borges Carneiro