A federal court for the District of California recently held that Nona Gaprindashvili’s suit against Netflix may proceed to the discovery stage.   Netflix had filed a motion to dismiss the suit right out of the gate.  But the court found its argument – that it could not be liable for a line in a fictional series – did not cut it.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Ms. Gaprindashvili contends the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” – a fictionalized portrayal of a woman from modest circumstances who rises to the upper echelon of the competitive chess world – defamed her.  The alleged defamation came in a voice over in the final episode, when the narrator was describing the ascent of the fictional hero, Beth Harmon.  The voice over said:

“[The male players believe] Harmon’s level of play wasn’t at theirs. Someone like Laev probably didn’t spend a lot of time preparing for their match. Elizabeth Harmon’s not at all an important player by their standards. The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men. My guess is Laev was expecting an easy win, and not at all the 27-move thrashing Beth Harmon just gave him.”

The series was based on a novel of the same name.  And in the novel, the passage read a little differently:

“As far as they knew, [Harmon’s] level of play was roughly that of Benny Watts, and men like Laev would not devote much time to preparation for playing Benny. She was not an important player by their standards; the only unusual thing about her was her sex; and even that wasn’t unique in Russia. There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not up to the level of this tournament, but a player who had met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before. Laev would be expecting an easy win.”

The voice over was talking about an event in 1968.  And as of that year, Ms. Gaprindashvili had indeed faced and defeated men.  She claimed the line tarnished her reputation by suggesting her skills were deficient.  She also claimed that Netflix acted with actual malice because it knew the line was false by virtue of the book’s text.

Neflix argued that the line, uttered in a work of fiction, was not intended to be understood as fact.  It pointed to the disclaimer it employed saying that the series was a work of fiction.  The court was unmoved. It found the disclaimer had little impact when the series made the decision to refer to an actual person, and stated an objectively false fact.  It really didn’t help that the novel used as the source for the series directly contradicted the line.  All of that was enough for the court to deny Netflix’s motion to dismiss.

“Libel in Fiction” cases are rare, but they come up more frequently than one might think.  If a TV series wants to be “ripped from the headlines” it needs to know it’s at risk.  There are two solutions it seems to me.  Either fictionalize everything and don’t refer to real people or — and this seems like the common sense solution – GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT.