Netflix has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a Georgian chess master who alleged she was defamed in an episode of “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Nona Gaprindashvili argued that her performance was discredited when a chess announcer on the Netflix series falsely stated that she had “never dealt with men”. In fact, in 1968, the year the series was set, Gaprindashvili had encountered 59 male competitors.
Netflix had tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, alleging that the show’s creators were broadly licensed under the First Amendment. But in January, a federal judge rejected that argument, stating that fictional works are not immune from lawsuits if they defame real people.
Netflix appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the case was dismissed on Tuesday.
“The parties are pleased that the matter has been resolved,” said attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, who represented Gaprindashvili.
The terms of the settlement have not been disclosed. A Netflix spokesperson also said, “We are pleased that the matter has been resolved.”
“The Queen’s Gambit” portrays Beth Harmon, a fictional American who becomes an international chess champion. In the final episode, Harmon defeats a male competitor at a tournament in Moscow. An announcer explains that her opponent has underestimated her. “The only unusual thing about her is actually her gender. And even that is not unique in Russia. There is Nona Gaprindashvili, but she is the female world champion and has never dealt with men.”
Gaprindashvili, now 81, argued the reference was “grossly sexist and disparaging”.
Netflix argued that the reference was intended to recognize Gaprindashvili, not to belittle her. The series employed two chess experts to get the details correct.
The streamer also relied on a 2018 ruling in the California Court of Appeals with the FX show ‘Feud’. In that case, Olivia de Havilland claimed she had been wrongly portrayed as a “vulgar gossip.” The appeals court sided with FX, finding that creators have a right to interpret history and that real subjects have no veto power over how they are portrayed.
However, in the Gaprindashvili case, US District Judge Virginia Phillips found that this does not mean that creators have an unfettered right to defame people.
“Netflix does not cite, and the Court is not aware of, cases where charges of defamation for the depiction of real persons in otherwise fictional works are excluded,” the judge wrote. “The fact that the series was a work of fiction does not insulate Netflix from liability for defamation if all elements of defamation are otherwise present.”
The settlement means the 9th Circuit won’t be able to decide — at least for now — on where to draw the line when portraying real people in fictional works.