Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Leave Borat Alone

The news wires were hot yesterday with stories about Sacha Baron Cohen being sued once again over his Borat character, this time by Israeli comedian Dovale Glickman for use of the phrase "wa wa wee wa." (See this fanastic wikipedia entry on Borat; this is the link to the official Borat homepage; this is the link the official Borat movie homepage.). Here is a story (in Hebrew) from the Israeli media. According to the Israeli reports, the phrase originated with three people: Glickman, Anat Gov (the script writer), and Yoram Levi (the director). Glickman used the term in TV in commercials for the Israeli yellow pages company, where Glickman played Saul, a flower vendor. Cohen had access from his time in Israel, a time when the ad was running. The story reported yesterday by the Associated Press reads:

"Following lawsuits from Southern conservatives, frat boys, Romanian villagers and seemingly every other group in the "U.S. and A.," Sacha Baron Cohen could be facing even more legal difficulties over his wacky comedic creation, Borat Sagdiyev. This time his accuser is an Israeli comedian who claims that Borat's signature exclamation of excitement -- "Wa wa wee wa" -- belongs to him.

According to "Good Evening With Guy Pines," an Israeli entertainment news show, Dovale Glickman plans to sue the Golden Globe-award winning comedian for copyright infringement. Baron Cohen capped his Golden Globe acceptance speech by thanking "every American who has not sued me so far." But he didn't count on Glickman. The Israeli comedian coined the phrase 16 years ago, for a character on the hit Israeli comedy show "Zehu Zeh." Glickman further popularized the expression in a series of TV commercials for the Israeli yellow pages. It caught on and is still commonly heard on the Israeli street. When asked by The Associated Press if he planned to press forward with a lawsuit, Glickman would neither confirm not deny the report.
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" was a huge hit in Israel, in large part because Israelis were the only ones to truly understand what the anti-Semitic, misogynist Kazakh journalist was actually saying. Few realize that in the movie Borat is not speaking Kazakh or even gibberish, but rather Hebrew."

Under U.S. law, "Wa wa wee wa" (meaning roughly "Wow") would be unprotectible as a short phrase. See 37 C.F.R. 202.1(a). My limited understanding of Israeli copyright law leads me think the same is true under Israeli copyright law. Israeli copyright law was originally derived the 1911 British Act (see this article by Debbie Rabina at Bar Ilan University), although more recently it has been moving toward its own approach. Most recently, an omnibus revision is close to passage. (See this December 28, 2006 summary by Israeli scholar Zohar Efroni at the Stanford Center for Internet & Society website). Two weeks ago, the Economics Committee of the Knesset adopted a non-exhaustive "fair use" provision in its approved text for Section 19 of the pending Copyright Bill. Another excellent source is the excellent Israel Law Review, a peer review journal by the faculty of Hebrew University. The journal publishes outstanding articles on jurisprudence by Israeli scholars as well as scholars from around the world. It also frequently publishes articles on copyright. In its most recent issue (volume 39, no. 3, December 2006), it has an artcle by Professor Guy Pessach (I wonder if he eats kitniyot) entitled "Israel Copyright Law: A Positive Economic Perspective," a law and economics look at the subject.

Returning to the Glickman-Borat contretemps, perhaps the news story really mean that Mr. Glickman intends to pursue a trademark claim (the Israeli reports claim Glickman is upset that Cohen is not even pronouncing the “wa wa wee wa” right), but in any case, to Mr. Glickman, I say, with Borat (hint to non-Hebrew speakers, read the wikipedia entry):

קום בחור עצל וצא לעבודה


Unknown said...

I agree with your interpretation of the Israeli Copyright Act. WWWW is probably not copyrightable, and I doubt whether TM law will save dear Dovale from going to work..


Anonymous said...

The world is just after the bucks!