May 10, 2020

Court dismisses privacy claim against documentary makers

Wiseau Studio, LLC et al. v. Harper et al., 2020 ONSC 2504 (CanLII)

On April 23rd, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice dismissed two privacy claims brought against the makers of a documentary – one based on the misappropriation of personality tort and the other based on the intrusion upon seclusion tort.

Wiseau (and others) brought the claims against the makers of a movie called Room Full of Spoons – a documentary about Wiseau and his own infamous movie, The Room. The Room has become notorious as one of the worst movies ever made. Room Full of Spoons disclosed Wiseau’s birthdate, birth name and place of birth, facts available to the public but not widely known, in part because Wiseau’s cultivation of mystery about his background.

Wiseau aggressively objected to the release of Room Full of Spoons, according to the Court, in part because he held a financial interest in a competing film. He obtained an injunction in 2017 that was held to have been improperly obtained, leaving Wiseau on the hook for $750,000 in damages.

In addition to making this damages order, Justice Schabas wrote a lengthy judgement that adresses fair dealing and related copyright issues, a passing off claim and various pre-trial and trial procedure issues. I’ll just address his disposition of the two privacy claims.

Justice Schabas dismissed the misappropriation of personality claim because Wiseau was a public figure who cultivated interest (and mystery) in his personality. The defendants’ use of Wiseau’s image to promote Room Full of Spoons (which was limited) was therefore not actionable. Justice Schabas followed Gould Estate, and held that use of Wiseau’s image served the purpose of contributing accurate information “to the public debate of political or social issues or of providing the free expression of creative talent” and was not primarily a means of “commercial exploitation.”

Justice Schabas dismissed the intrusion upon seclusion claim for reasons unrelated to the defendants’ right of expression, finding no “highly offensive” intrusion at all:

Wiseau has failed to make out the elements of the tort in this case. No personal details of the kind referred to in Jones v. Tsige were disclosed by the defendants. Rather, what was disclosed was Wiseau’s birthplace, his birthdate, and the name he was given at birth and had as a child in Poland. This information was available from public sources, which is how the defendants obtained and confirmed it. Wiseau may be sensitive about this information because he has cultivated an aura of mystery around it, but disclosure of these facts is not, objectively speaking, something which can be described as “highly offensive.”

The idea that Wiseau’s privacy claim could not be sustained because his information was publicly available is significant, though consistent with traditional notions of privacy and confidentiality.