View Full Version : Securing Rights

06-09-2004, 03:12 PM
I know about the book 75-year rule. But say I want to write a screenplay about a period in my life. I'm the main character, but my family, friends, and work acquaintences are also in it. Do I need written permission from them in the form of "rights?" What form does this take?

What about writing something about someone I know and their specific situation, BUT I base my "fictional" screenplay on those events? There's a group of people I know who did something very specific - but rather than go on a fact-finding mission, I just think the IDEA would make a great movie. Can I make up all the particulars, change the names and venue (even though they'll be the same *types* of people and venue in the screenplay)? And then, do I need some sort of permission?


06-20-2004, 11:17 AM
Basically, there are two things you have to worry about: (1) copyright and (2) defamation, and other privacy torts.

People have rights to their own stories. If you have a story that you can tell about yourself, that can be used for a movie or book, you have a copyright in that story that needs to be assigned to the person exploiting the story. For many public figures, you don't need to sit down with them and hear their story to write a story about them, so you wouldn't need a copyright assignment to write their stories (and since they're public figures, defamation isn't a big problem either--more on that in a second). So, basically, if you're just writing about people and forming stories around public facts, you don't need the copyright assignment. But if you're interviewing people for more than just facts -- you're interviewing them in order to get a full, narrative arc, then you need them to assign you the right to their story.

The second concern is defamation (and other privacy-related torts). If you include anyone in your story who is disclosing private details about their lives, or who is identifiable, and who isn't a public figure, you're going to be extremely interested in getting that person to sign some kind of release so that they can't hold up your film in costly litigation (no matter how weak the claims are). You'd rather argue in court about contract validity (which is simple) rather than about whether the person has actually been defamed or misrepresented or their privacy has been violated (gray areas). Usually a release will also include a copyright assignment just so there's no question that a contribution, no matter how trivial, belongs to you. But, realize that side characters offering only facts and not a narrative in an of themselves, are not providing copyright material.

Incidentally, dead people and their families can't sue for defamation. So you can lie about a person after he or she dies, but not before. Estates do have a right to use their images (Dean, Monroe) in commerce in CA. So you can't use a dead person to endorse a product without licensing the trade mark in the name or image, but that's a different matter.

Regardless of whether you're getting a copyright assignment or protecting yourself from defamation, you can always enter into an agreement with someone to be the only one with whom they'll cooperate to write a life story. That agreement will include a copyright assignment and waivers regarding defamation, but it will also include warranties about agreeing only to cooperate with you, and will give you other exclusive rights beyond copyright.

06-23-2004, 03:08 PM
LaTaGu, thank you!

Sounds like my snippet of my own life story will be touchy, but the one about the situation I know (where names and places can be changed) - if I make up the details - is doable.

Thanks again! You must be a lawyer.

06-23-2004, 07:24 PM
That sounds about right. There's not copyright in ideas, and if you can't identify real people from your story, there isn't really a problem with defamation. (That won't stop them from suing you, but they're unlikely to win.)

If you do sell your script, by the way, your copyright assignment will include a warranty that you own all the rights in the work you're selling. Make sure that you disclose to the purchaser (in writing) the source of the story just to be safe. Their lawyers will tell you that it's OK, I'm sure. But you don't want them suing you for breach of that warranty if they get sued.

As for that other story -- your own biography, where real, living people are identified, but you don't need them to tell you copyrightable stories in order to write yours -- since the real people are identifiable, you do have to worry about them suing you, and a production company would probably want releases from them (and, again, your copyright assignment to the production company will warranty that your script doesn't defame anyone or violate anyone's privacy or rights of publicity, etc., so you can't get away with not getting your ducks in a row).

My impression is that writers deal with this by creating fictional composite characters. Unless you're really famous, people won't care if the characters in your life story are real or fictional, so you could be the only real person, and then you can combine others into fictional characters.