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alexrpeters
03-26-2011, 03:42 PM
I want to write a screenplay based on a series of historical murders.

The bulk of my research came from a very well researched non-fiction book writer by a best-selling writer who has written many other books most of which have been optioned so I am presuming that this one has too.

However, I also used other history books and primary sources as research and have found a great new take on the story. I've also watched the film which was made about the story years ago by an A-list actor (a terrible film) and think I can do a better job in retelling a fascinating but little known story.

Where do I stand legally on writing about these murders?

If I take certain scenes and dialogue from the main book then am I infringing on copyright even though the primary sources at the time can confirm that these events took places as described (even though I didn't do the research myself.)

What is the current legislation on this matter?

Ronnie Danjer
03-26-2011, 04:06 PM
From what I understand, and I am not a lawyer, any information that is deemed to be widely known outside of a specific piece of work is fair game. If there is a specific, exclusive piece of information or something that is only available or contained in the book, it is off limits.

For example:

Information widely known about a public figure can be written about without the rights to their story. Information contained exclusively in an autobiography by the public figure and not otherwise widely known may be legally protected.

Your best bet is to contact a lawyer about it.

spinningdoc
03-27-2011, 07:46 AM
What Ronnie says, plus: if the dialogue etc is only in the other book, and doesn't come from a third source, then re-using would contravene that book's copyright. If it's from a third source, then you'd have to look at the copyright position for that third source.

Also - if the other book's out of copyright, then you can do whatever you like.

(NB I'm in the UK. Your local laws may differ....)

jtwg50
03-27-2011, 08:52 AM
I'm a national-media journalist (Reuters, MSNBC.com, major newsppapes and magazines, etc.) and a published author. I specialize in investigative reporting, so I have run into and dealt with these issues many times over my career.

First off, you say "historical murders." A key issue for you is whether any of the key players in the tale are still alive -- and especially descendants of the murderer if his/her identity was ever reported. If they are, your biggest challange will be securing life rights from them, NOT source material. Just as one of many ALWAYS available current examples, Scott Cooper (writer-director of Crazy Heart) spent years trying to patch together all the life rights required (ex-wives mostly) to make a film about Merle Haggard. When it became obvious that could not be done, he opted for a fictional, broader tale.
So, IF any of your story characters or their direct descendants are still alive, you have to make a list of all the life rights you'll need to tell the story -- then go get them. Sometimes you can do that for free, or the proverbial $1, if your person WANTS the story told. If a key character or descendant does NOT want the story told, you are pretty much dead. Reason: If a major studio or prodco ever became interested in your script, the FIRST issue they would ask you about if life rights. I know because I was in that spot last year with a major untold "hero" story from World War II. No go -- his son and daughter wanted to forget what happened, not see a movie made.

Once you DO have life rights, your sourcing concerns are essentially abolioshed, because you now have access to a key piece of the "real source material" (participants) for the story.

Next, look at local and national newspaper archives to learn what was reported at the time and since. You can basically use media reports without concern. Magazine articles are different, because the writer owns the copyright. For a newspaper or broadcast outlet, the media operator owns the copyright -- big difference. And for magazines articles, content is legally considered valuable intellectual property. In most cases, news stories and media accounts of widely reported events are immune from such protection (a fee for re-use in another medium like a movie).
Deal with those two issues and you should be home free.

BUT get an intellctual property-media lawyer anyway to advise you on whether you can safely proceed based on what you have accumulated.
Good luck.

If you have any other specific questions, please PM me.

catcon
03-27-2011, 09:01 AM
The responses are all fine, but in other threads on this subject one of the best bits of advice is to just avoid the loopholes and write your own story, adapting this one.

For example, "free your mind" and write a story, let's say, about the Titanic, but with a couple of fictional characters, and make a billion dollars. I did this (haven't made the billion yet) about an untold WWII story. The only real legal consideration I made was to make sure my characters had different names from those actually recorded in the event. In other words, fictional characters wrapped around this true-to-life event.

You can write your documentary, or write your feature. It's up to you -- and your lawyer.

Good luck.

spinningdoc
03-27-2011, 09:23 AM
I don't know about US libel law, but the issue in the UK isn't naming, it's identification. So even if you change the name, if the people are still recognisable (not famous, just recognisable by people who know them), and you defame them, it's still actionable. Showing an Australian-American media mogul called Colin Nuthall acting sanctioning his reporters hacking the British royalty's voicemail would get your arse sued, for instance. Not that anyone like that would ever do anything like that, of course, and I'm not implying they would.

Also - there are times when 'based on a true story' can make the property more saleable. I've got a project like this: it's a great story, but I have a feeling that adding 'you know those products that are massively popular, here's the story of how and why the guy who came up with them did so' is better than 'here's a story about a guy who invented some products that became massively popular' when it comes to actually selling a pitch.
Apart from that, yes, most times, not getting pinned down by awkward stuff like facts is generally the way to go.

(NB I'm not a lawyer. Just another reporter with a working knowledge of relevant law.)

catcon
03-27-2011, 09:34 AM
...Also - there are times when 'based on a true story' can make the property more saleable. I've got a project like this: it's a great story, but I have a feeling that adding 'you know those products that are massively popular, here's the story of how and why the guy who came up with them did so' is better than 'here's a story about a guy who invented some products that became massively popular' when it comes to actually selling a pitch...

Throughly agree. Something based on everybody's favorite Internet technology is far more marketable than something based on a make-believe train mega-company (see recent unnamed thread) ;)

I suppose one thing you can add, to the issue of using an actual person, is that if after you write your story it turns out that person had been jailed for porn crimes, or subsequently gets jailed for porn crimes, your project can be dead in the water. :(

I don't know. I think it's always safe to use our imaginations and invent things, for specs. Personally, I'll only go near a "true story" if I were approached by somebody for an assignment, and get the wad of cash up front, or maybe if it's a really old story ie. Middle Ages, where no skeletons are going to jump out of the closet.

alexrpeters
03-30-2011, 05:32 AM
Thanks for the responses guys,

Regarding the "still living" or "ancestors" questions, the murder happened a couple of hundred years ago, so no problems there.

My question was specifically to do with the book in question which did a tremendous job in researching the historical murders, using many primary sources.

My concern was that if I lifted scenes and/or dialogue from the book BUT WHICH ACTUALLY HAPPENED AND WAS REPORTED ON AT THE TIME, am I leaving myself open for accusations of plagiarism?

I'm fairly confident that I'm on strong ground by doing my own research (which I'll probably document as I go along), but just wanted it clarified here.

Thanks guys

Ronnie Danjer
03-30-2011, 10:09 AM
Thanks for the responses guys,

Regarding the "still living" or "ancestors" questions, the murder happened a couple of hundred years ago, so no problems there.

My question was specifically to do with the book in question which did a tremendous job in researching the historical murders, using many primary sources.

My concern was that if I lifted scenes and/or dialogue from the book BUT WHICH ACTUALLY HAPPENED AND WAS REPORTED ON AT THE TIME, am I leaving myself open for accusations of plagiarism?

I'm fairly confident that I'm on strong ground by doing my own research (which I'll probably document as I go along), but just wanted it clarified here.

Thanks guys

CONTACT AN ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER
:shifty:

Ronaldinho
03-30-2011, 11:34 AM
in researching the historical murders, using many primary sources.

My concern was that if I lifted scenes and/or dialogue from the book BUT WHICH ACTUALLY HAPPENED AND WAS REPORTED ON AT THE TIME, am I leaving myself open for accusations of plagiarism?


My understanding - I am not a lawyer - is that so long as you have multiple sources, you're fine. The writer of the book does not own scenes that really happened.

Two things:

First, I wouldn't describe yourself as "lifting scenes from the book." You are using a scene that the real author used. Just a little mental thing.

Second, document your sources as you go.

CthulhuRises
03-30-2011, 02:29 PM
I want to write a screenplay based on a series of historical murders.

The bulk of my research came from a very well researched non-fiction book writer by a best-selling writer who has written many other books most of which have been optioned so I am presuming that this one has too.

However, I also used other history books and primary sources as research and have found a great new take on the story. I've also watched the film which was made about the story years ago by an A-list actor (a terrible film) and think I can do a better job in retelling a fascinating but little known story.

Where do I stand legally on writing about these murders?

If I take certain scenes and dialogue from the main book then am I infringing on copyright even though the primary sources at the time can confirm that these events took places as described (even though I didn't do the research myself.)

What is the current legislation on this matter?

So you didn't like "From Hell"? ;)

Scriptonian
03-30-2011, 03:13 PM
Great post by jtwg50. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Alex, I'd be careful about decedents no matter how long ago the crime. A great-grand nephew of gangster John Dillinger prevailed in a lawsuit against a company who opened Dillinger's Restaurant, with a gangster motif. The restaurant was forced to close, and damages were awarded I believe.

Do your own dialogue research or what was said at the time, and add to or supplement quotes in the book, so no line-by-line lifting from the book. Describe scenes, from your own research, more fully than those narrated in the book.

Good luck.

alexrpeters
04-01-2011, 03:55 AM
CONTACT AN ENTERTAINMENT LAWYER



I'm not sure what an entertainment lawyer charges but from dealing with other lawyers in the past I know they love to charge hourly rates for everything and will very rarely give concrete, unequivocal advice (they are lawyers after all!).

As I'm not in a position to send the screenplay out yet, I thought I'd just check on the board first before shelling out bucks for a screenplay that's not ready.



First, I wouldn't describe yourself as "lifting scenes from the book." You are using a scene that the real author used. Just a little mental thing.



Very very true, the way I worded it sounded guilty but I suppose I'm being careful. Very true about documenting my sources though, I've been extremely careful on this. Every scene I've got a primary source for.


So you didn't like "From Hell"?

Lol very good guess but no it's not that series of murders (and I actually quite liked the movie but it didn't come close to touching the amazing work Moore did on the graphic novel)

Great post by jtwg50. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.



Actually as a newbie I've also been blown away by how helpful people across the entire forum are, especially when,let's face it, a newbie like me turns up and is just another competitor on the scene.

Seriously great forum

Craig Mazin
04-06-2011, 01:18 PM
"But your honor, I was fairly confident!"

C.