'Borat' Faces Legal Challenges on Public Releases

The movie Borat depends on a lot of real people for its humor. And now that it's a box-office hit, some of those real people are challenging the legality of the releases they signed to allow their appearance in the film. Did every non-actor who appeared in the movie sign a release? How airtight are those agreements?

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Lots of Americans have been shelling out 8 or 9 dollars to see the comedy "Borat." It's been number one at the box office for the past two weekends. That makes the Fox studio happy.

But as NPR's Kim Masters reports, many of the people portrayed in the film are not laughing. They're busy dialing their lawyers.

KIM MASTERS: If you haven't caught up with Borat quite yet, the movie involves a fictional journalist from Kazakhstan. That would be British comic Sasha Baron Cohen, who interviews real people. Sometimes he embarrasses them. On other occasions, they embarrass themselves.

One lawsuit has already been filed by two American frat boys who made racist and sexist comments after getting drunk with Borat. Another is threatened by residents of the impoverished village of Gilat in Romania, who are presented as Borat's backwards neighbors in his home country of Kazakhstan.

(Soundbite of film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan")

Mr. SASHA BARON COHEN (Comedian): (as Borat) This my town of Kirsek. This Orkin, the town rapist. Naughty, naughty.

MASTERS: The Romanian villagers told reporters that they were led to believe they were participating in a documentary. They complained that they were paid a pittance and then exposed to international humiliation. The frat boys say they were plied with alcohol and assured the film would not be shown in the U.S. Their lawyer says the boys were fraudulently induced to sign a broad release form, a form that granted the filmmakers rights in perpetuity throughout the universe.

But attorney Michael Donaldson, the author of a textbook called "Clearance and Copyright," is skeptical.

Mr. MICHAEL DONALDSON (Author, Clearance and Copyright): They have a very, very steep mountain to climb.

MASTERS: Donaldson doesn't believe it will matter to a judge whether the Borat crew verbally misled the young men about where the film would be seen since there's no such restrictions in the release form that they signed. He also doesn't think a court will care if the filmmakers got the boys drunk.

Mr. DONALDSON: The court gets to see exactly how drunk they were, which was not falling down incapacitated.

MASTERS: Donaldson says the villagers could have a claim because they were portrayed in a false light and in a manner that caused them humiliation. But he thinks it's almost a certainty that the moviemakers obtained broad releases from them, too. In fact, Donaldson doesn't think anyone in the film - innocent bystanders, the rodeo audience that hears Borat mangle the national anthem, the mortgage bankers whose meeting is disrupted by a nude wrestling match - have a legal claim.

Mr. DONALDSON: Those people were clearly in a public place with no expectation of privacy.

MASTERS: So Borat's victims may have a tough time in court. But according to Professor Larry Gross of the Annenberg School at USC, that doesn't mean Borat is innocent.

Professor LARRY GROSS (Annenberg School, USC): From the point of view of the ethics of filmmaking or the ethics of even satiric storytelling, this seems to be well over the line.

MASTERS: Gross has less sympathy for the frat boys than he does for the Romanian villagers. But in a way, both are victims. Satire is fine when it attacks the powerful, Gross says.

Professor GROSS: It's another thing to enlist people how are powerless and weak in contrast to the filmmaker in something that ultimately holds them up to ridicule.

MASTERS: Attorney Michael Donaldson has a more cynical point of view. When a movie makes a lot of money, he says, lawsuits often follow. He thinks the real problem for Borat's so-called victims may be that the film turned out to be a hit.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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