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Companies get sued every day, and Netflix is no exception. The streaming giant has faced dozens of civil cases, and there are sure to be more Netflix lawsuits in the future.
Netflix’s July quarterly filing with the SEC suggests that at present Netflix “does not consider [its legal] matters to be material either individually or in the aggregate at this time.” However, its annual report filed in January is more revealing and expansive with respect to future risks, suggesting there are many, including:
“Intellectual property claims against us could be costly and result in the loss of significant rights.”
“We face risks, such as unforeseen costs and potential liability in connection with content we acquire, produce, license and/or distribute through our service.”
“We are engaged in legal proceedings that could cause us to incur unforeseen expenses and could occupy a significant amount of our management's time and attention.”
Let’s take a look at the five biggest lawsuits against Netflix going on right now, along with some future legal concerns, some past highlights, and one very strange (and very false) Netflix legal legend.
Netflix is a tech company in the video streaming business. So it’s no surprise that Netflix faces many of the same sorts of legal challenges that other tech giants face — namely, patent issues, corporate espionage, and employee “poaching.”
Netflix is a veteran of plenty of legal battles over patents. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Netflix has been stealing tons of technology; patent lawsuits are common in tech, and they can arise with good reason or for no valid reasons at all.
In tech, it’s all too easy to “weaponize” patent laws. Broad enough patents can block competitors from whole business spaces. Patent “trolls” can snap up “dormant” patents and then sue companies using the patented technologies and techniques. And companies may even sue with weak cases in the hopes of driving their competitors out of business with steep legal costs (though Netflix is so big that it doesn’t have to worry much about this particular threat).1
And these aren’t the only kinds of issues Netflix deals with. After all, Netflix isn’t just in the tech business. It’s a media production and distribution company, too. So Netflix also deals with legal issues that media companies and movie studios deal with, like defamation suits and copyright claims. It’s easy for Netflix to be named in suits like this even when Netflix wasn’t involved in producing the movie or TV show; many of the less interesting Netflix lawsuits are focused on copyright issues in movies that Netflix is just distributing to streamers. Things get a little more interesting when Netflix itself is behind the film, as we’ll see in some of our examples later on.
Netflix is dealing with plenty of legal threats right now. Hollywood Weekly Magazine is suing Netflix over the title of the Tiger King miniseries, claiming copyright violation on the phrase.2 Another lawsuit claims that the plot of Stranger Things was lifted from a screenplay called Totem.3 And those are just two of the many lawsuits and threats Netflix is juggling as of this writing. We’ll cover the biggest, most interesting, and weirdest of Netflix’s legal issues below.
Not every legal threat that Netflix faces ends up in court. Here are a few legal issues that are not lawsuits (not yet, anyway), but that Netflix’s legal team is almost certainly aware of.
“Space Force” copyright issues
Netflix’s Space Force is a comedy that lampoons something very real: The United States Space Force, a uniformed service of the United States.
This raises the possibility that the federal government could sue Netflix. The good news for Netflix is that the show’s name is probably on firm legal footing (Paramount’s TV show JAG, among others, is a precedent for government names in TV titles).4
Still, Netflix’s legal team is no doubt aware that the government would be free to try its luck in court. And there are certain areas where confusion might exist. For example, if Netflix were to start selling t-shirts with the Space Force logo on them, the government would likely have a gripe. That’s why Netflix has moved quickly to secure trademark rights to the “Space Force” name around the globe — seeming to outmaneuver the government’s trademark efforts in the process.5
Alan Dershowitz’s threat
Legendary attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has represented high-profile clients like O.J. Simpson and President Donald Trump, is spoiling for yet another legal fight. Deshowitz isn’t happy with how he is represented in a documentary about one of his former clients, notorious child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Netflix’s Filthy Rich covers Epstein’s crimes and those of his powerful and well-connected friends — a group that includes Dershowitz, who is accused of sex crimes in the documentary by Epstein victim Virginia Roberts Giuffre.
Dershowitz denies it all and claims that Netflix distributed the documentary despite knowing that Giuffre’s allegation was false. Dershowitz says he plans to file suit against Netflix for defamation.6
Will he follow through? Netflix’s legal team will have to wait and see. Dershowitz has already sued Giuffre for defamation over these same allegations (which she made on the record prior to the Netflix documentary), so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him sue Netflix, too.
Netflix’s legal team may be keeping an eye on upcoming threats, but they certainly have plenty to do in the here and now. Netflix is involved in plenty of ongoing lawsuits, including some that have dragged on for years and others that have been filed within the past month.
Netflix’s Sherlock Holmes lawsuit
Netflix has faced plenty of copyright cases over its original programming, but the legal battle just now beginning over the character of Sherlock Holmes may be the most unusual. At issue is the Netflix original film Enola Holmes. Netflix has the film rights to the title character, a sister of Sherlock Holmes created by author Nancy Springer, but it didn’t go get the rights to Sherlock himself because the company didn’t think it needed them.
This is where things get weird. It’s true that Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain, as are the first 50 of his adventures (from 1887’s A Study in Scarlet to 1922’s The Problem of Thor Bridge). But the last ten accounts of Sherlock Holmes’ escapades, from 1923’s The Adventure of the Creeping Man to 1927’s The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, are still under copyright, and so are controlled by the late author’s estate. In other words, you can write a story about Sherlock Holmes, but you can’t use things from those last ten stories.
What the author’s estate is alleging is that Netflix used character traits of Sherlock Holmes’ that appear only in those final ten stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was deeply affected by the events of World War I, and it changed the nature of his writing. According to his estate, it was only after World War I that Sherlock became a nice and empathetic fellow. In their view, the Sherlock of Netflix’s Enola Holmes has a bit too much in the way of kindness and emotional intelligence, and is therefore in violation of the estate’s copyright.7
Is it much of a case? Well, we’re not attorneys, so we won’t hazard a guess. We will say this, though: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate is rather notorious for being litigious, and its frequent claims have a somewhat less than stellar track record in court.
Linda Fairstein’s defamation case
Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a miniseries based on the true story of the Central Park Five, five Black and Hispanic teenagers who were falsely convicted of rape in the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case. When They See Us focuses on the accused, their family lives, and their experiences in custody.
The show met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, but not everyone was happy. Linda Fairstein, a former New York City prosecutor who was running the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office at the time of the case, claimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the series false portrays her as “an overzealous prosecutor and a bigot.”8 Fairstein
wrote that she was pleased that the rape convictions had been vacated in light of new evidence, but that she felt that the other convictions (for lesser crimes, on suspicion of which the teens had been apprehended in the first place) should have stood.
DuVernay’s documentary does blend truth with imagined dialogue, and the words it attributes to Fairstein aren’t pretty. But whether that meets the standard for defamation is another matter.
DuVernay’s series is presented as being “based on” true events, and is not a documentary; and Fairstein’s legacy was connected to her role in the Central Park Jogger case long before DuVernay stepped in. Still, it remains to be seen if DuVernay went too far. She and Netflix weren’t able to get the case thrown out, so Fairstein still has a shot.
Broadcom and patent infringement
Though it may not be as tabloid-ready and some of Netflix’s other lawsuits, the Broadcom patent case is a great example of the sort of lawsuit that streaming services need to be particularly careful about.
Broadcom’s claims relate to nine different patents. Together, these claims affect some pretty significant chunks of Netflix’s streaming infrastructure and content delivery systems. At stake are systems and techniques that include some of those that Netflix uses to deliver content reliably and without interruptions or “choppiness” in the video.
The narrative here is at least a little more exciting than the tech-related stuff: Broadcom makes the chips that are used in cable set-top boxes, and the cord-cutting trend that Netflix is helping to lead is costing Broadcom big-time. If Netflix is making this happen using patented technology that Broadcom owns, then Broadcom is interested in making Netflix feel the financial pain.
The actual technology, by contrast, can be pretty dry stuff. We’re talking about code that allows for more efficient resource use, balances out server loads, and ensures that the content plays nice with different encoding formats demanded by different end-user devices. But for Netflix, of course, this boring-sounding stuff is very important — and if it is found that Broadcom owns the
patents for the tech that keeps Netflix on top of the streaming world, that’s going to be a very costly thing for Netflix. This case is in relatively early stages.
Mo’Nique’s discrimination case
In 2018, Netflix offered comedian and actress Mo’Nique (born Monique Angela Imes and now using the legal name Monique Hicks) $500,000 to do a stand-up special. Mo’Nique didn’t just turn it down; she turned around and accused Netflix of gender and racial discrimination. After laying out her accusations in an online video, Mo’Nique filed suit. Hicks v. Netflix, Inc. is still playing out in court.9
Mo’Nique alleges that Netflix makes a practice of offering less to Black and female performers. Her $500,000 offer was worth less than what Netflix has offered (and paid) to performers like Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, and Dave Chapelle. Black comedian Wanda Sykes has come forward to support Mo’Nique’s accusation, saying she was offered “less than half” of what Mo’Nique herself turned down.
Netflix will presumably argue that market forces, not bias, determined its offers. The company will be able to point to many of the same cases that Mo’Nique does; though none are Black women, Schumer is a woman and both Rock and Chapelle are Black.
Choose your own lawsuit
Netflix’s original film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch was a bold and original project that took advantage of the nature of internet-connected streaming services. The film was an interactive piece of art that let the viewer choose how the story would progress. In some ways, it was a lot like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books — in fact, the story focused on a book that is described in dialogue as a “choose-your-own-adventure book” (the viewer-controlled protagonist is trying to turn the story into a video game).
This didn’t go over well with the Vermont book publisher Chooseco LLC. Chooseco has been publishing the Choose Your Own Adventure books for decades, and the company promptly sued Netflix for violating its copyright. A motion by Netflix to dismiss the case was denied, so this case is moving forward for now.
Netflix doesn’t have to worry about these cases anymore, but we want to note them for various reasons. Some of these were important to Netflix and/or legal precedents, and others are just a whole lot of fun.
Devil in the details (2018)
If you watch The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, you’ll be able to spot a devilishly cool prop: a spooky-looking goat-headed sculpture. It’s certainly a unique piece — a bit too unique, actually, according to Manhattan’s Satanic Temple organization. The Satanist sued, saying that Netflix had copied a statue they’d commissioned in 2014. The copyright case of the lookalike Lucifer (or Baphomet, actually; this occult deity is actually not the same guy as Satan, though he does seem to run in the same spooky circles) was settled out of court.10 Stay tuned for the Sabrina credits, and you’ll see that Netflix has updated them to credit the occultists for their undivine inspiration.
Talent takeover (2017)
Streaming media is a cutthroat business, but it’s not quite true that “all’s fair” in this kind of competition. In 2017, Netflix was sued by 21st Century Fox for snapping up two top executives from Fox’s film studio. Fox claimed that Netflix induced Fox employees to breach the terms of their fixed-length contracts. Intentionally targeting folks who said they’d work for Fox until such and such a date, and getting them to break that deal and join the competition instead, is a legal no-no in the corporate world — at least in California, where Fox sued for a breach of California’s unfair competition law. In a summary judgment, the court agreed that Netflix was in violation of the law and granted an injunction that legally barred Netflix from going after any more Fox employees who were under fixed term contracts.
The price is wrong (2016)
In 2016, Netflix hiked its prices for the first time in years. Its customers weren’t happy, and at least one of them went so far as to sue. A Florida man tried to take Netflix to court, claiming that he’d been promised the same price for life. His suit was promptly dismissed, but we’ll always remember his righteous rage.
A landmark case for subtitles (2011)
Back in the early 2010s, Netflix was targeted in two cases over its lack of proper subtitling. In both Don Cullen v. Netflix, Inc. and National Association of the Deaf v. Netflix, Inc., Netflix tried to defend its incomplete and unreliable subtitling. The courts ruled that Netflix had to provide subtitles under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was a big deal, because it established that online services like Netflix are bound by ADA regulations in more or less the same way that their brick-and-mortar counterparts are.11 Netflix and its competitors don’t just offer proper subtitles as a special feature — the subtitles are actually required by law.
The greatest of all Netflix legal tales goes like this: A mother discovers, to her horror, that her teenage daughter is pregnant. When she discovers that the little miracle happened during a “Netflix and chill” session, she sets out for justice — and sues Netflix for child support.
Believe us when we tell you that we are heartbroken to report this: The amusing tale of Netflix-and-sue is a fabrication. Snopes, among other sources, has debunked this tale and its variant versions.12 Though the tale is mostly harmless (though not in every case — some versions of the story make troubling use of racial stereotypes), it’s also entirely untrue. It originally debuted on “Huzler,” one of those “satirical” news sites that seems to traffic more in believable fakes than in discernable jokes — though this one, you have to admit, is at least a little bit funny.