‘Innocence of Muslims’: Could Actors Sue Over Anti-Muslim Re-Writes?

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By Christopher Zara | September 15, 2012 6:53 AM EST

The actors who appeared in an anti-Muslim movie that has ignited fierce protests throughout the Middle East say they were duped about the movie's Islamophobic content.

They say they were working from a script called "Desert Warrior," a simple adventure movie set in Biblical times. What the filmmaker ended up making was "Innocence of Muslims," a low-budget movie lampooning the Islamic prophet Mohammed and painting him as an unscrupulous philanderer and pedophile. 

According to the actors, who released a joint statement condemning the movie, the cast and crew were "shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved."

The question is: What can they do about it? While some amount of script revisions and dialogue overdubbing are common during the post-production process, contextual changes with incendiary implications are not usually among them. So what legal recourse do actors have when they suddenly find their images being used in a movie meant to inflame political tensions? Some entertainment law professionals say quite a few.   

"Just off-hand, I can tell you that the actors could have claims for fraud, right of publicity, false light, inappropriate use of name and likeness, libel and defamation and removal of screen credit," said James T. Hetz, an entertainment attorney based in Orlando, Fla. "Additionally, the employment contracts may provide a further basis for a claim. These would be governed by the law of the state where the action can be brought."

According to the casting notice for "Dessert Warrior," which was posted on the Backstage website, the producer had planned to apply for a SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement. To qualify for such an agreement, the budget of a movie must be less than $200,000, and the actors can't be paid a day rate of more than $100. It's unclear whether an application for the movie ever went through, or what type of contract -- if any -- was signed by the actors. A request for comment sent to Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the few actors who have revealed their identities, has not been returned.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief administrative officer and general counsel of SAG-AFTRA, said union contracts do provide protections for actors to ensure that their roles are not significantly changed -- either through dialogue changes or contextual changes in the script -- during the editing process. Such provisions protect actors against what is known in the legal world as "fraudulent inducement," which occurs when one party is induced to perform by another party through deceit or misleading information.

In a phone interview with IBTimes, Crabtree-Ireland said he could not comment specifically on the "Innocence of Muslims" incident or the actors in the movie, but as a general rule, he said, a professional filmmaker would not conduct such extensive re-writes during post-production without the actors' knowledge. "It's highly unusual to see large portions of dialogue changed and replaced with a different actor," he said.

Even if it turns out the actors have no union protection, they may still have recourse under federal law, according to Hetz. Hetz cites the Lanham Act, a key stature in federal trademark law, which protects against trademark infringement and false advertising. "This act is in place not only to vindicate 'the author's personal right to prevent the presentation of his work to the public in a distorted form,' but also to protect the public and the artist from misrepresentation of the artist's contribution to a finished work,'" he said.

Of course, this is assuming the actors are telling the truth, and that they were in fact unaware of the film's anti-Muslim content. As many facts surrounding the movie's creation are still being revealed, Hetz said that "much research would have to be done under the appropriate state's laws and federal laws to determine if all of these would be viable claims."

A sound-production expert on Thursday transcribed the instances of dialogue he believed were overdubbed and emailed his notes to IBTimes. Each instance of overdubbing was a reference to Islam or the Muslim faith.

Violent protests surrounding "Innocence of Muslims" began Tuesday in Egypt and have since spread to other Middle Eastern countries, including Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Federal officials now say the man behind the film was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in California. Nakoula has a rap sheet that includes being charged with intent to manufacture methamphetamine and being convicted of bank fraud in 2009. Authorities told CNN on Thursday that the FBI contacted Nakoula because of potential threats, but no charges were filed against him and he is not under investigation.

Presumably, that's because there is nothing illegal about uploading offensive videos to YouTube. However, the law doesn't end there, and if the actors involved truly were duped, they may have more legal options than Nakoula was counting on.    

"This is one of the reasons why SAG-AFTRA is constantly advocating to give actors greater control over their own likenesses," Crabtree-Ireland said. "Now you have a situation where actors' lives could have literally been put in danger."

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