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Actress Sues IMDb for Revealing Her Age

in Filmmaking
on Oct 19, 2011

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It was bound to happen. An unnamed actress has filed suit against IMDb for revealing her real age. The actress, known only as “Jane Doe” in the suit against Amazon.com, IMDb’s parent company, is seeking $75,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages, plus lawyers’ fees.

The alleged misconduct occurred after the actress signed up for IMDbPro in 2008; as filmmakers know, this is a different process than creating a public profile (or having one created for you), which had presumably already been done. Soon after joining IMDbPro, she saw her actual age on her public profile. Since she is approaching forty, having her age posted online would, the lawsuit argues, be detrimental to her getting younger parts. (The lawsuit was reported by numerous AP outlets).

From the suit:

“If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents-manager, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent.”

This particular actress claims to have a young look, making her unable to get parts in the 40-year-old range. After repeated attempts to get IMDb to take down the birth date, she’s filed suit.

While this might not have the repercussions of the ongoing IRS case against documentarian Lee Storey in Arizona (read more about that here), this case is still interesting for filmmakers — particularly those trying to manage their own image. Age discrimination is rampant in casting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s malignant: finding the right-looking actor is just part of the process. But many actors — and others who fear repercussions for revealing their real age — may have good cause to conceal their actual birth date. For example, Filmmaker has heard similar complaints about IMDb’s age postings by below-the-line crew, including key grips and gaffers who worry that producers will be biased against older employees. But the problem is certainly greatest for actresses. Last year Juliet Stevenson, Lesley Manville, and Gemma Jones released a joint statement against age discrimination for actresses, saying female parts are for “nubile and beautiful” twenty- and thirty-somethings, and that women over 40 being are pressured to get cosmetic surgery just to get work. Overall, said Jones, “there’s an anxiety about having to pretend to be younger than you are.”

The fact that women over 40 can have increased trouble getting roles is one topic of concern. It’s another to allege that a private company doesn’t have the right to publish an individual’s birth date in a database containing other biographical material.

The legal questions may come down to a couple of points. Is Amazon/IMDb within its right to publish accurate information for its users, despite the wishes of any particular individual? Was the publishing of her age on the public IMDb site derived from the violation of any sort of privacy agreement she may have entered into by subscribing to IMDb Pro, or was this information publicly available? Does the plaintiff’s industry make her age proprietary information? And, most broadly, does the publishing of ages constitute an invasion of privacy?

I’m no lawyer, but I think the burden of proof might come down to whether or not Jane Doe is, by virtue of her profession, a public figure. Public figures have a harder time proving invasion of privacy than private individuals; the court would have to decide that the information made public has no general public interest and/or that it is malicious or casts the victim in an unnecessarily disparaging light, even if true. If the birth date is accurate the plaintiff can’t sue for any type of defamation. But would the publishing of a simple birth date pass muster with those criteria in an invasion of privacy suit? Legal experts, feel free to weigh in.

There’s one last angle to consider for the rest of us, which is simply the practical one: what will this mean for filmmakers, actors and crew for whom public forums like IMDb or Wikipedia are a means of marketing themselves? While many filmmakers aren’t concerned about managing personal details like birth dates, credits are another story. IMDb has criteria it uses to determine whether a film should or should not be included. Attaching a new credit, removing an unwanted one, or taking down an unflattering photograph can require navigation of an almost Kafkaesque bureaucracy — if it’s possible at all. Sites with user-generated controls, like Facebook, ProductionHub, LinkedIn, and Shooting People, give this control back to its users. But IMDb’s users are the public, and the industry members in its database just the information being traded.

No one’s going to quit using IMDb to get information; it’s too amazingly useful. And film industry folks can’t opt out of being profiled. Or can they? I suppose Jane Doe’s suit might have the opportunity to set or clarify a little bit of precedent about just what personal information we can still control in our age of information overload.

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