Hollywood mystery solved in Seattle!

See update at end of story

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting front-page profile of the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb as it’s known to a vast user base that consults the website 110 million times a month for facts and trivia. Turns out IMDb actually is headquartered in Seattle–Amazon.com owns it–and tries to keep its physical location a secret. As the story recounts, the mystery is somewhat in keeping with the stealthy way IMDb comes up with, say, the true birth date of an aging actor who otherwise might shave five or 10 years competing for roles in an industry where youth seems to be paramount. (IMDb and Amazon are being sued on this in Seattle, about which more later.)

535 Terry Ave N, Seattle: The font of movie trivia

Now, as someone New To Seattle, I simply don’t see the city as any big den of big secrets. I have lived around some places that are. Like Albuquerque, a center of nuclear research where authorities managed to hush up for 29 years the fact that a hydrogen bomb accidentally fell out of a military plane in 1957 (it didn’t go off). Or even Los Angeles, where what some consider the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred in 1959 when a reactor partly melted down on the city’s northwest corner and little alarm was sounded.

Still, I find it amusing that a Web site in Seattle not exactly essential to the maintenance of national security feels it necessary to hide. Maybe IMDb is afraid some crazed fan with a gun will shoot up the place after screaming, “If I can’t have Kevin Costner, you can’t, either!”

Specifically, the WSJ wrote that IMDb’s inner workings “remain mysterious” and that the organization “lists no address.” The spirit of IMDb’s own dedication to unearthing inconvenient truths begged for some hard-hitting investigative reporting to smoke out the hideout.

Except that it didn’t take much reporting. Mainly just some poking around IMDb’s own public website, which means no privacy is being violated.

Buried deep within the IMDb site is a page with the snoozer title of “Content Subscription Service Terms and Conditions.” To see it, click here. Scroll down the page far enough and there’s a snail-mail address for subscribers to give notice:

IMDb.com, Inc.
535 Terry Avenue North
Seattle, WA 98109-5210

Attn: VP IMDb

That, my friends, looks suspiciously like the World Headquarters location of IMDb. The local Better Business Bureau web site at this writing lists the same address and even provides a working phone number. The location is in the World Headquarters complex of parent Amazon in Seattle’s rapidly developing South Lake Union area just north of downtown. Near the top of this post is a picture of 535 Terry Ave. N. Like all of Amazon’s buildings, the facade is devoid of external corporate markings. A passer-by might think it’s just a well-maintained back office for an insurance company.

IMDb’s boss is Col Needham, a 45-year-old Brit who developed the database in the 1980s, put it online and sold to Amazon in 1998. The WSJ story quotes him but doesn’t say from where he spoke. It’s a fair bet not in Seattle. Needham runs the business out of Bristol, England (the site’s early name was Cardiff Internet Movie Database; Cardiff is less than an hour’s train ride from Bristol). A recent job opening posted on Amazon.com seeks a Seattle-based IMDb executive assistant reporting to, among others, “CEO IMDb during his quarterly visits.

To some degree the hook for the WSJ story is a lawsuit now pending in Seattle federal court against IMDb.com Inc. and Amazon.com by one Junie Hoang, an actress whose real name is Huong Hoang. What, you missed her last film? She’d say that’s because IMDb.com printed her true date of birth (in 1971, making her 41), which is about 10 years earlier than she had been telling casting directors.

Defending a fib is usually a hard thing to do in court. But Hoang says that IMDb got onto her true age in this way: She gave a credit card number to sign up for IMDbPro, a premium paid service, and IMDb used that, her latest complaint says, to “research and cross-reference public records and other sources” about her, including birth date. Hoang claims a violation of contract and privacy rules since, she says, IMDb doesn’t explicitly state in its posted privacy policy that it uses credit card information as leads for information to be put out for public consumption.

An IMDb/Amazon brief calls Hoang’s factual allegations “unsupported, implausible [and] hypothetical.” What the brief doesn’t call them, however, is false. To my practiced eye, that’s pretty close to an admission that her credit-card number indeed led IMDb to her true age.

Some judge or jury (Hoang is asking for $1 million) might just read this as I do. So IMDb/Amazon also claims it has the right to use Hoang’s data exactly the way Hoang said it did.

Morality aside, that strikes me as a 50-50 legal issue. Should you find this argument troubling, you now know where in Seattle to complain or even throw up your picket line.

UPDATE: On April 11, 2013, a federal court jury in Seattle rejected Hoang’s claim. According to an Associated Press story, IMDb lawyers argued her true age made it onto the public database only because Hoang previously had given a falsely younger age, later tried to remove any mention of her age and asked IMDb to check its records, which it did so by canvessing public records and uncovering the truth.

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Hollywood mystery solved in Seattle! — 6 Comments

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