When my son Jack was six years old, he went to a birthday party for a girl in his class. The girl had a Barbie house and when Jack saw it he said, “With only about 200 changes, that Barbie house could be an army base.”
Jack isn’t a judge, but his transformative skills would qualify him to decide right of publicity cases for the Ninth Circuit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with introductions. Jack meet Jeff. Jeff meet Jack.
Jeff is retired Staff Sargent Jeffrey Sarver, a former explosive ordinance disposal technician with the U.S. Army. Sargent Saver was the subject of a 2005 Playboy article written by Mark Boal titled, “The Man in the Bomb Suit.” Boal wrote the article after being embedded with Sarver’s bomb disposal team in Iraq. The article chronicles Sarver’s bravery while facing great personal risk. Boal wrote that Sgt. Sarver’s job is “so dangerous that bomb techs are five times more likely to die in Iraq than all other soldiers in the theater.”
That article was the genesis of Boal’s screenplay for the motion picture The Hurt Locker, which was released in 2009 to critical acclaim. Boal won an Academy Award for his screenplay and the motion picture won five Oscars including one for Best Picture.
Here’s the problem: Boal did not seek, nor did he receive, Sgt. Sarver’s permission to use the circumstances of his experiences as a bomb tech in Iraq.
Sarver claims that Boal stole his life story.
Will James, The Hurt Locker’s main character, was played by actor Jeremy Renner. Renner was essentially the same age and height as Sarver. Renner dyed his hair blonde and adopted Sarver’s West Virginia accent and certain personality traits to impersonate Sarver. In the movie, Will James, like Sarver, was a former Army Ranger with a young son living with his ex-wife back home. Most of the EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) missions depicted in the movie are identical to Sarver’s real missions and James, like Sarver, set the record for the most IEDs (improvised explosive devices) disarmed by any single soldier.
What would you expect Boal to say in response to Sarver’s claims? You guessed it, Boal denies that the screenplay was based on Sarver. In fact, he told the LA Times that “William James is a fictional character that is the product of my imagination.”
This post originally appeared on abovethelaw.com.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.