A lawsuit has recently been filed against Rockstar Games which alleges that their character from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City infringes on a copyright that has been placed on a television psychic known as Miss Cleo. The suit itself is very oddly timed, especially when you consider that the game was originally released in 2002, a whole 15 years ago.
The suit claims that the character Auntie Poulet is guilty of an “Unauthorised reproduction of copyrighted material.” Miss Cleo became a household name across America in the 1990s. Known for her television appearances, she was a psychic portrayed by the actress Youree Dell Harris, who sadly passed away in 2016. Take-Two Interactive has promised to fight back against the law suit and aim to quell any claims that Miss Harris’s lawyers are making. A spokesperson for Take-Two stated that: “These claims are entirely meritless and completely ridiculous. We will vigorously defend ourselves with regard to this matter.”
The claim being made against Rockstar states:
“Auntie Poulet’s similarities to Miss Cleo and her copyrighted attributes are of such breadth and extraordinary nature that they can only be explained by copying - which is unsurprising given that (Rockstar) hired the actress who performed as Miss Cleo to provide voiceovers, using the same accent as Miss Cleo, for the infringing videogame.”
On the surface of this all, it seems that Miss Harris’s lawyers have a rather compelling case. The character of Auntie Poulet seems to have some resemblance to Miss Cleo. She even has a strong Jamaican accent, rather like Miss Cleo’s, despite Poulet being a Haitian gang leader in the game. The case presented is 10 pages long and describes all the scenes in which they believe Rockstar have knowingly infringed on copyright laws. These claims were supported by a number of factors.
The first was the decision to hire Miss Harris “at the height of her popularity” for the role of Miss Poulet. They claim she was hired “to capitalize on the notoriety and fame of Miss Cleo in order to create her clone.” The visual appearance of the character was very similar as well. PRN, the company behind the lawsuit, claims that:
"In particular, [Rockstar] copied Miss Cleo’s vibrantly coloured caftans and turbans, as well as the patois and mysticism of Miss Cleo, in designing and animating her doppelgänger Auntie Poulet. Both Miss Cleo and Auntie Poulet are said to be trained in Voodoo, have a strong link to the occult, are of Afro Caribbean origin, and reside in South Florida. Auntie Poulet is voiced by Ms. Harris, who uses the same fake Jamaican accent (rather than using a French Creole Haitian accent that would comport with Auntie Poulet’s stated background) she used when performing as Miss Cleo."
PRN will have to provide a significant amount of evidence to prove that the two characters share enough similarities and are so alike that there can be no counter argument. The timing is a major factor for the whole case. The fact that Vice City has been released for over 15 years now brings a whole world of questions to the table. PRN has claimed that it knew nothing of the case until Miss Harris’s passing, when tthey learnt about it in her obituary.
PRN could claim that the infringement still continues to this day as the game is still readily available across a variety of platforms. You can still buy or download Vice City as a brand new title for the current generation of consoles, but the court may interpret this differently. They may claim that if the infringement has continued, they may only be able to file the case against the most recent release of the game as a brand new title, which would be the mobile version released in 2013. Rockstar do have the option of raising a parody defense case where they would accept PRN’s claim that Poulet is a copy, but they would more likely argue that her appearance in their game falls under the rulings of fair use parody. The character of Aunt Poulet is very over the top, but so is the character of Miss Cleo. A footnote in the filing read that:
"Prior to reviewing this obituary (and others), PRN had no knowledge of Defendants’ infringement of its intellectual property in Miss Cleo Creatives. Specifically, it came to Plaintiff’s attention in July 2016 that Defendants and/or their agents had produced and distributed the infringing videogame without Plaintiff’s knowledge or authorization. This was the first time that Plaintiff learned of Ms. Harris’s involvement in Vice City. After reviewing Vice City, Plaintiff discovered Defendants’ infringement and has brought this action to enforce its intellectual property rights."
The case, if it makes it to court, will certainly be an interesting one to follow. We will, of course, keep you updated with any information as it becomes available.