Intellectual Property

Goodfellas Actor Suing Simpsons Because Mafia Character Looks Like Him

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Twenty-five years after the release of the mafia gangster movie Goodfellas, and twenty-three years after the mafia characters on the The Simpsons were introduced on the animated television show, one of the actors in Goodfellas is suing the creators of The Simpsons because, he alleges, they stole his likeness in creating one of the mafia characters. The actor is Frank Sivero, who played Frankie Carbone and says the Simpsons character gangster Louie looks like him. Here's a side by side:

Louis and Frankie
"The Simpsons"/"Goodfellas"

It's hard, I think, not to see a resemblance, but the idea that performing artists be able to "own" the broad features of characters they create seems ridiculous. Even if you've never watched Goodfellas, the Simpsons character looks like what you might imagine a member of the mafia looks like.

Sivero doesn't explain why he waited more than two decades to sue, but does explain why he thinks the creators of The Simpsons "stole" his character. Via NBC News:

Silvero claims in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court that in 1989 he lived in a Sherman Oaks apartment next door to "The Simpsons" writers and that "Simpsons" producer James L. Brooks was "highly aware of who Sivero was, the fact that he created the role of Frankie Carbone, and that 'The Simpsons' character Louie would be based on this character."

"During this time, both writers knew who Sivero was, and they saw each other almost every day," the complaint alleges. "They knew he was developing the character he was to play in the movie 'Goodfellas,' a movie Sivero did in 1989. In fact, they were aware the entire character of 'Frankie Carbone' was created and developed by Sivero, who based this character on his own personality."

Can I say ay caramba or is it going to get me sued? Will the Department of Homeland Security have to get involved?

Related: This summer Sivero sued a deli in Los Angeles for selling a sandwich called the Frankie Carbone.

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  1. Nice little television series you got there…

  2. Now you listen to me, you smooth-talking son-of-a-bitch, let me lay it on the line for you and your boss, whoever he is! Frankie Sivero will never get that settlement! I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!

    1. So, which end of the horse do you want in your bed?

  3. How does Sivero have ownership over his character in Goodfellas? Wouldn’t that belong to whoever owns the film rights

    1. According to Wikipedia, Sivero asserts he is the one who developed the characterization etc (perhaps sort of like Jacob Cohen developing his Rodney Dangerfield character and that being lifted lock, stock, and barrel into the Al Czervik character in Caddyshack). The article also states that Sivero lived next door to writers for the Simpsons. He says they stole the characterization he was developing. Even if all this is true, waiting 20+ years means he let it move into public domain. Sorry, no soup for you! Oops, I mean no curry salad for you!

      1. Right of publicity is pretty danged broad, too.

      2. Even if he developed the character himself, he still was being paid as an actor to play that character on a film that he doesn’t own. So he doesn’t own that character at all, the studio does.

    2. No, his likeness, not his character. He says his likeness belongs to him, which means that anybody born after him who looks like him is violating his I.P. rights and should be eradicated from this earth.

      1. I am not a fan of the right of publicity, which goes far beyond anything reasonable. Thanks, 9th Circuit.

      2. that he created the role of Frankie Carbone, and that ‘The Simpsons’ character Louie would be based on this character.”

    3. This was pretty much my question. Even if he developed the character for the movie, I’d kind of expect that to be “work for hire”, if nothing else.

  4. I mean, duh. I think this guy is just broke and looking for a score.

  5. Didn’t Tom Waits try something like this a few years back…and win (was kind of surprised he did).

    1. “Tom Waits did not sue Frito-Lay for copyright infringement. At the time Waits didn’t own the copyright (in the work of authorship) to the song “Step Right Up”. This was, and is, owned by Fifth Floor Music Inc (controlled by Martin/ Herb, Evan Cohen). One might assume Frito-Lay did indeed obtain the “synch” license from Fifth Floor Music to use the song in the commercial. And as they were not using the song as recorded by Waits himself, they didn’t have to worry about copyright in the musical work (owned by Elektra/ Asylum). Had Waits at that time owned the copyrights to the song, he would surely have sued for copyright infringement. Publicity rights allow a person to control the use of his name or likeness in association with the sale of a commercial product. Waits sued for “false endorsement” (the public was led to believe that Waits was singing, and this deception violated Waits’ publicity rights by associating him with a commercial product he did not want to endorse) and “misappropriation of his voice” (suggesting there was as a matter of fact something recognizable and distinctive as: “his voice”). Had Frito-Lay used the music only or used a voice that sounded nothing like Waits’, Waits would probably not have had a case. But Frito-Lay somehow wanted the “real thing.””

      1. Thanks for the clarification. The “voice” is kind of unique.

        1. I don’t think his voice is unique, but the combination of that voice with that song is probably what did Frito-Lay in. If they used a sound-alike with, say, “Johnny B. Goode”, Waits wouldn’t have had a case.

      2. Waits is hardcore about not wanting his music used in commericals. I’m not surprised he sued. I would assume his point here was that “I don’t do endorsements and commercial work, and I don’t want people thinking I do.”

        1. He doesn’t do commercial work, I assume he cashes his royalty checks.

          I’m a huge fan, as a songwriter he’s in the elite of the elite class, and it’s his life and all but that does come across as sounding kind of “my art is just too precious to be sullied by trade”

          Mozart would have sold his music to the highest bidder, doesn’t detract from him being the greatest composer ever…and he is.

  6. Sivero doesn’t explain why he waited more than two decades to sue

    Considering I can’t think of anything else the guy has been in, I’m gonna go with “desperate for money”…

    Related: This summer Sivero sued a deli in Los Angeles for selling a sandwich called the Frankie Carbone.

    …and a lawsuit whore.

    Can’t wait to see how many more dego, wop, guinea, greaseball goombas come out of the woodwork to sue now.

    1. He was probably sitting in his apartment waiting for another callback that wasn’t coming, eating cereal while watching The Simpsons marathon and just fuming.

  7. Yeah, other than the nose, mouth, chin, eyebrows being TOTALLY different….it’s exactly the same character.

    Must be the hair I guess…

    Someone needs to grease this goombah….

    1. And the skin being yellow

      1. Ah, yes – good catch

  8. Maybe Matt Groening will have him killed and stored in a refrigerator truck.

    1. First he’ll wake up with Krusty the Clown’s head in his bed. If he doesn’t drop the suit after that… more extreme measures may have to be taken.

    2. +1 Layla

      1. Acoustic version?

        1. This version. Specifically at 1:10.

  9. So, remind me again how I.P. encourages creativity…

    1. Yeah, I heard that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee refutes the entire common law. No more courts, because…???

      1. Re: Acosmist,

        Yeah, I heard that woman who sued McDonald’s over the hot coffee refutes the entire common law.

        IP and Common Law exist on very different principles, A.

        So, remind me again how IP ENCOURAGES creativity…?

        1. A limited amount of IP protection, less than we have, encourages creatively. We’ve definitely gone past the optimal point, sure. But I think that a legal regime where you could not enforce trade secrets through NDAs and the like would have less division of labor.

          1. A limited amount of IP protection, less than we have, encourages creatively.

            This is an assertion without much proof. Sure, a state that respects no property or agency at all sees little creative effort, but there have existed states without formal IP laws that were cultural powerhouses.

            Furthermore, it rests on the peculiar notion that the government, and not the people, is the best judge of value. If people find a creative effort valuable, they will reward it.

            1. kbolino, your post seems a bit inconsistent to me. You do seem to be conceding that the government needs to respect property. How is that not also a “peculiar notion that the government, and not the people, is the best judge of value?” If people find real property valuable, they will pay for it, even if there are not laws against theft of rivalrous goods as well?

              Even the concept that it can all be regulated by private contracts requires state respecting the basic concept of intellectual property, that it is something that can be the subject of a contract and disputed.

              1. Do you recognize a difference between aggressive and non-aggressive actions?

                If so, then the distinction is fairly clear. Taking and keeping real property involves aggression; producing and selling a duplicate does not.

                Insofar as the state has a legitimate function, it is to make aggression the costlier option to commerce.

                Now, on its face, contract law may appear antithetical to this. Does not the enforcement of contracts involve aggression? No; the uncoerced signing of a contract is consenting to the terms stipulated therein. Not all violence is aggressive; violence you consent to, for example, is not. If you own yourself, then you can sell yourself, in part or in whole, and contract law is an extension of that principle.

                As a practical matter, sure the courts would need to have some respect for the rules of a particular contract in order to enforce it effectively. That however is a far broader issue that is not in any way unique to contract law; statutes are no less subject to the respect of the courts.

        2. You don’t think that if books couldn’t have copyrights at all, that that wouldn’t harm creativity? The optimal copyright term is, I think, shorter than what we have now, but I don’t believe it’s zero.

    2. I don’t really understand the aversion to a property right in intellectual property in principle, though I fully agree that it’s absurdly overbroad in the U.S. right now. Of course being able to have ownership in original works is an incentive to create the works in the first place.

      1. Re: Pro Libertate,

        I don’t really understand the aversion to a property right in intellectual property in principle

        It’s very simple, Pro: IP is an undue transfer of title from property owners to someone who claims to be the “originator”.

        Let’s say you make a cabinet that is both beautiful and functional. I find it perfect for my needs so I use MY wood, MY hammer, MY nails, MY glue and MY shellac to create an exact copy of that cabinet, and then you go ahead and claim I cannot have MY cabinet because the “idea” belongs to YOU, even though *I* did not use your wood or nails or hammer – I used MINE. Who sets the unjustified transfer of title of ownership? THE STATE.

        IP is not only a violation of real property rights, it also does NOT encourage creativity as it completely violates the LAW OF DIVISION OF LABOR as you RESTRICT the number of people who can labor over the idea, tweak it and improve upon it. It may encourage an inventor because of the incentive to own a MONOPOLY, sanctioned by the State, but not CREATIVITY ITSELF.

        1. Eh, in reasonable cases the broadest sense of IP encourages division of labor. People who can design something are not always the best people to manufacture it. People who can author a novel are not necessarily the best people to publish and distribute it. Without any concept of IP at all, they’d have to be the same people, or at least in the same firm.

          I don’t look at, say, ARM Holdings, and think that the entire concept of IP is crazy. Now, it may be that (arguably) weaker concepts like trade secrets and NDAs and so forth may be a better way of dealing with things than patents. But that’s still part of IP as a concept.

          1. Statutory law should always be the last resort of law, because it binds all so strongly. It should be reserved for constraining the actions of the government, not the people. IP can be effectively maintained through contract and common law, and so the resort to statutory law is a grave misdeed.

            Of course, we have a population who thinks that legislators exist to pass ever more statutes, so it should come as little surprise that statutory law has become the first resort and most give little heed to the consequences of binding all their fellows without regard to consent or limitation.

            1. But it still requires that contract and common law recognize the concept of IP. As I understand it, Old Mexican is arguing against the entire recognition of the concept, which would make it entirely impossible to make it subject to contract or common law either. You can’t enforce a contract on things that aren’t yours.

              1. I cannot speak for OldMex but I believe I am in broad agreement with him. IP law as it exists is antithetical to liberty; it binds unrelated third parties without their consent.

                When I say that IP can be “effectively maintained” through contract, I mean that you can, through contractual relationships, establish a chain of custody for your idea. If you witness a random stranger possessing or creating an implementation of your idea, however, you cannot sue him. He has done you no harm. You can only attempt through investigation to determine which of your custodians has violated the agreement, and then bring suit against him (or them, as the case may be).

                I suppose if this is insufficient for your tastes, then you will not agree about my use of the word “effectively”. But it is my understanding that an IP “holder” wishes to simultaneously keep an idea for himself and profit off sharing it with others. It is not the place of the state to aggress against innocent people for the sake of resolving your conflicting desires.

        2. I absolutely think you have the right to dictate how the fruit of your labor may be further used at the point of sale. Most of what exists in IP law presently can be done through contract. Of course, you cannot bind third parties through contract; this is the crux of the difference.

          But IP as it exists is just as you say a state-granted monopoly. It claims a property right in violent contravention of plain facts. If the consumer valued your contribution, he would purchase from you. If he purchases from someone else, then that is where he found value. You are not owed the money from someone else’s pocket, and the profit of another off “your” idea is not your money.

          I find it puzzling how people who reject the zero-sum fallacy in other areas of economics allow it to creep back in with regard to IP. There is not a finite, predetermined amount of profit to be made from an idea; two can profit from it by offering value in their own ways to different consumers (price, quality, locality, warranty, etc.).

          1. My objection is to no IP law, not radically reformed and toned down IP law.

            I’ll admit that there is some utilitarian benefit to the laws in the first place–just look at the Constitution (“to promote the progress of science and useful arts. . .”). However, I think there’s also a moral right to own certain rights in what original works I create, unless I agree to contractually do things on a work-for-hire basis.

            1. And despite what I said below, that’s basically just my philosophical argument against IP. I actually agree with you that as a practical matter, some measure of IP law is probably beneficial. OTOH, that may be a purely legacy thought from a time when reproducing music was hard; Pretty much no one had the tools to make copies of records before cassette tapes, whereas today almost anyone who is even vaguely part of the technological world can make copies of and listen to MP3s.

              Despite having a lot of friends who are authors (and for whom, I must admit, the situation is somewhat different) I come into it with the perspective of a musician, and think that a lot of musicians fears about IP are basically conservatism run wild, and a fear of change. Musicians can still make plenty of money off live performances, even if they can’t on recordings any more. So, spend less effort on the recordings, and treat those sorts of releases as sort of an extended ad campaign for the concert tour. *shrug* It’s a different way of doing the music business (at least, since recordings came about at all) but that doesn’t make it bad.

              OTOH, of course, pretty much no one wants to sit there and watch an author write for three hours… 😉

            2. I can absolutely compromise on keeping the genie in the bottle and simply trimming copyright, patent, trademark, etc. law very limited in scope and effect. The Constitution does grant that power; I would sooner fight tooth and nail over the the powers exercised by the government not actually granted to it.

              However, I have yet to see a reform of copyright law that actually moves in the right direction, so we’re left with arguing philosophy in the face of always being on the losing side.

              1. Ignore the incorrect use of the “genie in the bottle” idiom…

              2. As far as copyright goes, an interesting point that is largely forgotten these days is that copyright is a permissive power of government–“Congress shall have the power to. . .promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress has the power to do these things, it doesn’t have to.

                On the flip side, the Constitution explicitly limits the power of the government to restrict speech: “Congress shall make no law . . .abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. . . .”

                So, in any rational legal reading of the cause and the subsequent amendment, copyright must give way to the First Amendment. The basic concept of copyright, which is a kind of limit on speech inherently, is okay, but when it doesn’t allow for things like parody and other types of fair use.

              3. so we’re left with arguing philosophy in the face of always being on the losing side.

                Just another day in the libertarian concentration camp, comrade.

      2. For me it’s that it does not refer to “real” property. The underpinning of the genesis of property rights is scarcity. Cars (as an example) are hard to make. They represent a lot of material and labor. If someone takes my car, they’re taking something that actually has physical existence, and will require labor or money to replace.

        If a musical artist makes a recording, and sells that recording on a CD, and the person who buys it uses their computer and their internet connection and hell, their electrons to send me a copy, the musical artist is not then lacking anything they had before. Nothing that exists has been taken from them. Furthermore, there’s almost no scarcity involved. The person who bought the CD can make nearly infinite copies of it for essentially free.

        If I lived in a Culture-like post-scarcity universe where I could push a button and basically instantly have another “copy” of my car appear out of thin air, it probably wouldn’t actually make sense to claim “property rights” to objects like that, because they’d be as reproducible as MP3s and .epubs are.

        1. the musical artist is not then lacking anything they had before.

          As long as you aren’t considering opportunity cost, this is true.

    1. We find in favor of the plaintiff and award him $24 because that’s the highest number, fuggedaboutit.

  10. As if we needed any more evidence that Hollywood types are prima donnas divorced from reality.

  11. The Simpsons version basically looks like Sideshow Bob with different hair.

  12. Can someone explain to me if the statute of limitations or laches applies here? I may lack the sophistication to understand why he can wait 23 years.

    1. Both are defenses that the Simpsons defendants will likely raise. I don’t know offhand how long the SoL in the current version of the Copyright Act is, but I’m sure it’s shorter than 23 years.

      Sivero can counter-argue that every rebroadcast of an episode featuring the Frankie Carbone character constitutes a new violation of the act…or at least that the rebroadcasts show a continuing violation, such that the SoL has not begin to run yet.

      Laches, being an equitable defense, is all about how good the lawyering is. It might be a good counter-counter-argument to the new/continuing violation theory. Sivero’s known about this for decades and sat on his rights, which equity doesn’t typically like.

  13. By his own argument Sivero’s known about this for decades and sat on his rights, even.

  14. It’s hard, I think, not to see a resemblance,

    Actually, I think its hard to see a resemblance. The nose, chin, eyes, and mouth are notably different.

    A smart lawyer would pull together half a dozen photos of actors who look more like the Simpson’s character (which I suspect wouldn’t be hard at all), and that should pretty much wrap up the case.

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