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IMDb Publishes an Actor's Age, and She Strikes Back With a Lawsuit

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IMDb Publishes an Actor's Age, and She Strikes Back With a Lawsuit
The Internet Movie Database has for years published the ages of film and television professionals in its online profiles—and for years many of the subjects of those profiles have hated that. With age discrimination a growing problem in the business, particularly in front of the camera, unions representing actors and other industry pros have pressed IMDb to modify its practice. But the company refuses to budge, claiming that the information is readily available in the public domain and that the act of publishing it is protected by the First Amendment.

But what if the information that IMDb publishes doesn't come from the public domain? What if the company instead pulls it from credit card data that a person enters when subscribing to the company's premium listing service, IMDb Pro?

That's what an anonymous actor claims in a lawsuit filed last week against IMDb's parent company, Amazon.com. The woman—a Texas actor of Asian descent who works under an Americanized stage name and is listed in the suit only as Jane Doe—is seeking $1 million in punitive damages and $75,000 in compensatory damages. In the suit, she claims that she looks younger than she is and that, by publishing her birth date, IMDb has damaged her career, making it more difficult for her to land jobs playing characters younger than her actual age.

Her attorney, John W. Dozier, told Back Stage that Amazon claims to have acquired the biographical information from his client's agent—an assertion that the attorney said is false. He added that this client is not the only actor to approach him about IMDb.

"I'm getting constant calls from actors and actresses who have similar complaints and want to sue Amazon," he said. A spokesperson for Amazon declined to comment, citing the company's policy of not discussing active litigation.

As national director of equal employment opportunities for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Ray Bradford has also fielded his share of complaints about IMDb. Though he has raised those concerns with the website, IMDb has stuck to its guns when it comes to publishing actors' ages.

"It's very frustrating to have to tell performers who want to get this [information off the website] that there's really no immediate way for us, as a labor organization, to get it off," Bradford said. "If it's something that a contractual partner—say, a network or an agency—is doing, then you have what I call a hook or an avenue for discussion, through a collective bargaining agreement. That's one thing. But we have no agreement." Instead, Bradford said, he has encouraged actors to pursue their complaints through civil litigation, as the anonymous Texas actor has.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, deputy national executive director and general counsel for the Screen Actors Guild, has also discussed the age issue with IMDb to no avail. He indicated that the actions the website is accused of in the lawsuit would be illegal.

"Any organization that uses private data solicited from people over the Internet in violation of its privacy policy is crossing the line," Crabtree-Ireland said. "Federal and state laws protect people from the public disclosure of certain types of information obtained in that way, and breaching those laws could result in consequences."

Both Bradford and Crabtree-Ireland, who have collaborated on this issue in the past, pointed to creeping age discrimination in filmed entertainment as the root problem behind their members' IMDb complaints. Crabtree-Ireland cited numbers from SAG's recently released 2009-10 Casting Data Report, which found that, though women make up 51 percent of the population, they portray only about 25 percent of the characters on television.

"In particular, women over 40 are still cast in far fewer roles than their representation in the population," he said. "With that gap in mind, it's easy to see why few actors would want their date of birth published on IMDb."

Bradford also asserted that age discrimination is an especially big problem for female actors, saying, "I get calls primarily from women, if not solely from women—and some very well-known women—wanting to know what we can do" about IMDb. Having run up against a wall in his own dealings with the website, Bradford offered praise for the anonymous actor seeking her day in court.

"It is very courageous," he said. "I think it's courageous for a member to stand up against things that they may feel are incorrect—to stand up in this business that's not only risk-averse on the industry side, because there are so many dollars at stake, but is risk-averse on the performers' side, because there is either a real or perceived fear of being blackballed."

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