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Litigation Lives Between Fact and Fiction: Lawsuits From “Based on a True Story” Productions

Posted by on Monday, January 16, 2023 in Blog Posts.

By Jacqueline Noel

In drawing inspiration from the real world, production companies must be careful to not find themselves dancing in the gray area between fact and fiction if they wish to stay out of a courtroom. Television shows and movies purporting to depict events and people that actually existed run the risk of spurring claims of defamation from the people portrayed in a given work of art.[1] Recently, Netflix has made headlines for the defamation lawsuits filed against it, serving as a warning to any producer who attempts to rewrite history.[2]

Central to a defamation claim are inaccurate statements made about a person passed off as fact.[3] Further, to succeed on a defamation claim, “the description of the fictional character must be so closely akin to the real person that a third party, knowing the real person, would have no difficulty linking the two.”[4] This issue is hotly contested and becomes increasingly difficult to prove when the plaintiff is not fully named– first names being insufficient.[5] Complicating matters further, if the plaintiff is a public figure and suing in the United States, she must also prove the statement(s) were made with actual malice. [6]

Despite the high burden plaintiffs must carry in order to protect producers’ First Amendment rights, production companies are still being hauled into court to endure costly litigation regarding “based on a true story” pieces. Most recently, a single comment in the Queen’s Gambit led to a settlement between Netflix and renowned chess player, Nona Gaprindashvili.[7] The comment referencing the plaintiff referred to her explicitly by her full name and asserted that she was the female world champion but had never played a man.[8] This, in fact, was false and the plaintiff contended she had played 59 male chess players.[9] Additionally, in August of 2022, Netflix was sued by Rachel Williams, whose name and persona were used in a depiction of a greedy and selfish friend to the main character in “Inventing Anna”.[10] While Netflix’s fate in this case is still undetermined, the presence of these defamation lawsuits serves as a noteworthy reminder to producers of the potential consequences of importing aspects of reality into a Hollywood created storyline. [11]

Jacqueline Noel is a 2L from Zionsville, Indiana. She plans to practice in Chicago after graduation.

You can download a copy of Jacqueline’s post here.

[1] See Emily Cox, “Based on a true story” – the legal issues around biopics, Stewarts (Dec. 13, 2022),

[2] Bryan Sullivan, Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ And ‘Inventing Anna’ Subjects Of Defamation Lawsuits, Forbes (Sept. 13, 2022),

[3] Cox, supra note 1.

[4] Sullivan, supra note 2.

[5] Sullivan, supra note 2.

[6] Cox, supra note 1.

[7] Wendy Lee, Netflix settles lawsuit with chess champion over ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, Los Angeles Times (Sept. 7, 2022),

[8] Lee, supra note 7.

[9] Lee, supra note 7.

[10] Winston Cho, ‘Inventing Anna’ Ignites Defamation Suit Against Netflix, The Hollywood Reporter (Aug. 29, 2022),

[11] See Cho, supra note 10.