Defamation of Anonymous Celebrities

An interesting idea came to me while writing my paper, which I think could be spun off into a topic all it’s own. When considering the problem of online harassment and privacy protection, I began to wonder: could there be a cause of action arising from damage to a reputation that is not linked to a real-world identity? To put it another way, is it possible to defame a person who remains anonymous?

Pseudonyms are very common in the gaming world, and many (if not most) lets-players market themselves under a username, rather than their real names. If such a person wished to remain anonymous, could they still protect their reputation from libel or slander? Would the law even recognize that there was anything to protect? Does defamation require that the reputation be tied to a specific person in meatspace? Does freedom of expression include the right to communicate anonymously?

While I can’t think of a gaming personality whose identity is not publicly known, I can think of at least one person who fits the description of “Anonymous Celebrity”: the British graffiti artist known as “Banksy“. Despite the fact that he is a world-renowned artist and academy award-nominated film director, the public and the press are completely unaware of Banksy’s true identity, or even if he is a “he”. As more people become famous entirely through their online persona, isn’t it logical to assume that we will start seeing more people like Banksy cropping up in the next few years?

Let’s assume that the law would recognize Banksy’s reputation as something worthy of legal protection. Would he have to abandon anonymity in order to exercise that legal right? If we assume that a person’s reputation does not have to tie to a meatspace human being, what would happen if an entirely fictitious celebrity were defamed? As an example, what woudl happen if the creators of the virtual band Gorillaz, or the virtual idol Hatsune Miku decided to sue on behalf of their creation?

This seems like a really interesting topic, and I almost wish it was October again, so I could write this paper instead. As it is, I think I’ll see if I can shoehorn in a paragraph or two about it, and leave the rest to some future student taking this class.

Edit: I should have mentioned the possibility of legal personhood. Certainly, if an anonymous or fictitious person were to incorporate, they could protect their reputation that way, but I’m talking specifically about unincorporated identities. Even if an anonymous person were to incorporate, it would be strange to see a corporation defending its reputation against very person-specific claims (“McDonalds doesn’t pay child-support!” “Hewlett-Packard was seen leaving Nicki Minaj’s hotel room!”)

One response to “Defamation of Anonymous Celebrities”

  1. benjamin5rr

    Interesting topic. I highly recommend reading the Grant v Torstar Corp (2009 SCC 61) decision. That’s a key decision regarding defamation in cyberspace. Basically, the Court held in that decision that a change of direction is needed in this area. Some key paragraphs are:
    paras 3, 52, and 85.

    Defamation is a jurisdiction-specific law, as far as I know. So, in addition to proving other elements of defamation law, the complainant must establish that his or her reputation was damaged in his or her jurisdiction.

    I think the protection given to anonymous celebrities will be minimal given the importance of freedom of speech (according to the SCC). Anonymous celebrities become famous because of public support; also defaming them is less damaging to their reputation (compared to “real” celebrities) if they have not disclosed their names or location. So, I doubt that they can enjoy the benefits of defamation laws as much as a “real” celebrity would, unless their reputation is damaged in their own jurisdiction.