Do I need to acquire any rights for a biopic screenplay?

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  • Do I need to acquire any rights for a biopic screenplay?

    I'm writing a biopic of a person who's now deceased and I'm getting conflicting information as to which rights (if any) I would need to acquire before selling it. I know I'd need the rights if it was based on one source (like a book), but nothing is based on one sole source. The person was very public and gave many interviews about his younger years, not to mention the many documentaries and articles etc about him. The main thing I'm concerned about is that he had his own television show and some of the scenes are directly taken from the footage from his own show, so the dialogue for example is transcribed word for word in some spots. Could I sell the script without acquiring the rights from the owner of the TV show, or his estate? At one point, he's interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her show and I would like to include a brief moment from this, but would I need to acquire the rights from Oprah and her company to include such a scene?

    Any insight on this would be wonderful and appreciated as, like I said, some websites say one thing and others say the complete opposite. I love the screenplay but I don't want to waste any time finishing it if I'm not even going to have a legal right to sell it.

  • #2
    You need a lawyer and a really good clearance person (the latter is more pre-production's responsibility) to get all this taken care of properly at the end of the day. You're not just talking about rights to the person's life which you should probably/possibly look at getting from his family, but if you take info from books, articles, interivews, etc. you will very possibly need to get rights to that info you take from them. And in terms of showing clips from shows, etc. that takes a bit of doing too. Lawyers always have to get involved with that stuff. It pretty much always takes some money to get those rights, that is if the people agree to sell them to you.

    This might be the kind of thing that you just finish anyway, if you truly love writing it. Do a great job with. Then hopefully find someone with the fire power to get all cleared for you. It's not impossible but it can get complicated tracking down rights for everything you want. Though, adjustments could be made to the script or things swapped out. Ultimately though, if you love writing, and you love writing this script, at the worst, if you knock the story out of the park, it could be a great writing sample. But clearance & rights would surely need to be dealt with, I say that with little to no doubt.
    Last edited by Done Deal Pro; 10-16-2020, 08:09 PM.
    Will
    Done Deal Pro
    www.donedealpro.com

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    • #3
      So there is the law that applies to your script if/when it sells -- don't need the life rights to a dead person but if they were a celebrity, there may be issues with using their likeness without the estate's permission; the likelier thornier issue is the (presumably) copyrighted television broadcasts, which the author would need permission or license from the copyright owner. As Will notes, that's all clearance stuff for the lawyers of the producer or studio who buys the script to figure out before it shoots.

      But just writing a thing on spec, it really doesn't matter, legally. Whatever best serves the story you're trying to tell, free reign at this point. "Saving Mr. Banks" made it to the Black List without a single clearance from Disney. It was clearly only ever going to actually get made if Disney actually bought it but even if they hadn't, it served the author's purpose of getting them onto the Black List and noticed by people who hire writers. There may be an opportunity cost of devoting the research and writing effort for a true story that can never sell, but that's a different call for you to make than the legalities of it (at this point)

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      • #4
        So, I did this same thing a few years ago. My biopic subject is/was still alive, but elderly. I used a book for the progression of events and some specific dialogue in a few scenes.

        When I tried querying it, I was able to send it to one production company that had read me previously (I don't have reps) that didn't care if I had the rights, they said they would just buy them if they needed to. That creative exec ended up going to a different company and I never heard back. I had one manager from a well-known company that wanted to read it but rescinded when he found out I didn't have the rights and had used that book.

        (And the whole time I was never sure if I should even mention the book at all -- could I just change the dialogue and I would be in the clear? Or did the fact that I used it for the specific progression of events mean I had to have the rights? I tried second-sourcing things, but found a lot of the "second sources" were actually just snippets of happenings sourced back to this same book. Argh. So, your confusion is valid and real and you have my sympathy).

        Only you can decide what to do. I enjoyed all the research I did and learning more about this person. It was fun and challenging to write a biopic. It's something I'd love to do again -- if I had the rights. As far as using my "writing time" for about five months to work on something that I later realized I'd never sell -- yeah, that sucked.

        Good luck with whatever you decide.

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        • #5
          Thanks to all three of you for your insights and advice. I do think I'll go ahead and finish it, doing my best not to include any material that might require the rights to use it. The story works just as fine without a 20 second scene with Oprah, anyhow. I think I can also try to avoid showing too much from his TV show and fictionalizing it somewhat when necessary, though I'm sure there will still need to be some rights acquired. I'll try to minimize them as much as possible, but I'm too in love with it to totally abandon. So thanks again.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by JoeBanks View Post
            So there is the law that applies to your script if/when it sells -- don't need the life rights to a dead person but if they were a celebrity, there may be issues with using their likeness without the estate's permission; the likelier thornier issue is the (presumably) copyrighted television broadcasts, which the author would need permission or license from the copyright owner. As Will notes, that's all clearance stuff for the lawyers of the producer or studio who buys the script to figure out before it shoots.

            But just writing a thing on spec, it really doesn't matter, legally. Whatever best serves the story you're trying to tell, free reign at this point. "Saving Mr. Banks" made it to the Black List without a single clearance from Disney. It was clearly only ever going to actually get made if Disney actually bought it but even if they hadn't, it served the author's purpose of getting them onto the Black List and noticed by people who hire writers. There may be an opportunity cost of devoting the research and writing effort for a true story that can never sell, but that's a different call for you to make than the legalities of it (at this point)
            Regarding your celebrity point, the more famous they are, the less you have to worry.

            IMO, if they are famous? Write it. Just write it. It has worked for me.

            As far as sources you use - if you can find multiple sources that confirm the same fact, you don't even need to worry about source rights. They would be good to have at some point (and a producer may try to secure them) but really, it's not important.

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