A lawyer for incarcerated Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is threatening to sue Univision and Netflix if they air a new dramatic series based on the narco’s life.
But even though El Chapo has trademarked his "Shorty" nickname in Mexico, the sheer amount of media reports published about the drug lord over the years essentially turned him into a public figure and would make it hard for him to claim exclusive rights to his story, according to legal analysts and copyright experts.
“You can be considered a public figure if you engage in activities that are widely reported in the press," says Howard Suber, a copyright consultant and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "All this stuff already appeared in newspapers, books and other publications and that essentially puts the information in the public domain. With all the press Chapo got Univision and Netflix can simply say they used public information about a public figure to make the series.”
The U.S. media companies announced earlier this month that they have teamed up to co-produce a series called “El Chapo,” which is scheduled to air sometime in 2017. But Chapo’s lawyer says both networks must first pay for the rights to use the narco’s name and nickname, according to an Associated Press report.
Defense attorney Andres Granados told the AP that his client is willing to negotiate with the networks and “could supply more information to make it a better project for them.” But he says that El Chapo has already granted the exclusive rights to his life story to Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, the telenovela star who brokered Sean Penn’s interview with the Sinaloa Cartel boss.
That means Netflix and Univision, which is Fusion's parent company, do not have permission to produce their series, the lawyer argues.
"If they air this, they are immediately going to be sued," Granados told the AP. "They, by necessity, need the authorization of Mr. Guzmán, because he is not dead."
Jose Refugio Rodriguez, another lawyer for El Chapo, told a Mexican radio station that airing the bio series would “invade” the drug lord’s right to intimacy and “human dignity.”
A spokesperson for Univision declined to comment, and Netflix did not respond. Fusion was unable to reach the drug lord’s defense lawyer for additional comment.
Chapo has shown a previous interest in U.S. media coverage of his life. During his interview with actor Sean Penn published in Rolling Stone last January, Chapo asked if people in the Unites States knew about him, and Penn told him about Fusion's August 2015 TV special Chasing El Chapo. "He seems to delight in the absurdity of this," Penn wrote. Chapo never threatened to sue Fusion.
A search of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, an agency and database where Mexican copyrights are filed, shows that a woman named Alejandrina Gisselle Guzmán Salazar (presumed to be El Chapo Guzmán's daughter) has attempted to trademark several variations of the kingpin's name. It appears she successfully registered the brand "El Chapo."
But that might not be enough, legal experts say.
Suber, the UCLA copyright professor who has worked as a consultant for some of Hollywood's major studios, acknowledges film companies usually buy life rights from individuals so they can tell their private stories in addition to the information available in the public domain. "For example, one of Chapo's girlfriends revealing he has a dragon tattoo on his ass could be considered personal information that the courts might protect," he said hypothetically.
But the chances of a court ruling in Chapo's favor are probably very slim, Suber said.
In theory, Chapo could try to sue for slander if he accuses the series' creators of making false statements that harm his reputation, but Suber says that would "open the door" for opposition lawyers to question the drug lord on his illicit activities.
Chapo is currently being held in a Ciudad Juárez prison near the Texas border, where he is being prepared for extradition to the United States. It remains unclear how and when that will happen.
Chapo's defense team recently told the press their client would not delay extradition through another appeal if an agreement with U.S. authorities was reached.
However, Chapo's lawyers allegedly remain divided as to how to handle the legal strategy against extradition, according to a Univision news report. A lawyer last week filed an appeal against extradition on behalf of the drug lord while another lawyer called it an "independent" move that was carried out without Chapo's consent.