Screenwriters: A primer on acquiring rights to someone’s life story

Recently, I’ve been getting a few inquiries about whether it’s legally ok to use a segment of a real story that has been posted on the Internet for one’s screenplay (script) and so I’ll go ahead and address life story rights for film in today’s entertainment attorney blog post. 🙂

Right off the bat, it’s important to note that anyone’s life story and rights thereof really belong to that person. One can’t just write a screenplay/movie about an actual person and a portion of his life, without obtaining rights to this person’s life story or particular life event. If you are referencing the actual person’s name and life event(s) and it’s easily apparent to a family member or friend of that person that your screenplay/movie is talking about that person (for brevity of words, from here on out, we’ll refer to this person as “Mr./Ms. Life Story”) then don’t be surprised if you end up getting sued for copyright infringement because you did not obtain permission in the first place for using Mr./Ms. Life Story in your screenplay or movie. Now, although whether a family member or friend of Mr./Ms. Life Story can detect if your screenplay/movie is based on or references Mr./Ms. Life Story is not the standard, if it is apparent to the average person (i.e., jury member in a trial) that your screenplay/movie indeed was based on or referenced significant events and/or distinguishing features of Mr./Ms. Life Story’s life, then you are in for some legal trouble.

So, how do you go around this if you can’t obtain permission for using a portion of Mr./Ms. Life Story’s life/story? Well, legally, you really can’t, but if you’re willing to make sacrifices in your story by changing things around in the story, then your screenplay/movie, on the surface, wouldn’t seem to be infringing on anyone’s life story rights. But, there are many factors to consider when changing your literary elements around. Maybe you would need to give Mr./Ms. Life Story a wholly different name, change up his/her background, including family members/relations, birth date, location, profession, and/or character/personality, or simply add strong characteristics and/or elements to your fictional character’s persona or life story event(s), in order to distinguish your fictional character from Mr./Ms. Life Story. But if the life event(s) of Mr./Ms. Life Story that you are basing your screenplay/movie on or referencing is/are super unique and special to just Mr./Ms. Life Story, and you’re including a combination of those life event(s) special and unique to Mr./Ms. Life Story, then there’s really no way to go around doing this and I would highly advise you to obtain written permission from Mr./Ms. Life Story from the get go.

One screenwriter indicated to me the other day that he/she wanted to use a particular scene that was described on the internet and some of the dialogue that went with it, and whether this was ok for him/her to do without obtaining permission to do so. Well, it depends, BUT obviously if this screenwriter will be using the particular scene exactly as how it has been described on the internet, including some of the exact dialogue, then yes she is getting herself into some potential legal trouble. What are the ways this screenwriter could mitigate this perhaps? Firstly, I would suggest changing up a few of the major events and elements in the particular scene that the screenwriter is referencing, and then changing the dialogue if not chucking it entirely and writing in new dialogue, perhaps with a new perspective or take. I’m no screenwriter, but I would guess that creatively there would be many ways for the screenwriter to address and get at in his/her screenplay/movie the underlying theme(s) and/or issue(s) that drew the screenwriter to the particular story in the first place, without having to actually verbatim copy or reference Mr. Life Story or the particular scene or dialogue in question. So, why not go the safe route by creating something wholly different. But then again, I understand that a screenwriter may be wanting to use a particular life story event of another because without it, his/her story would have a hole. If that’s the case, then, by all means, please obtain permission beforehand!! =)

Anyhow, those were just the basics of life story rights. If you have a matter pertaining to life story rights, or need legal advice/assistance on a particular matter with your screenplay, film, writer’s agreement or option purchase agreement, we are happy to help as we serve all creatives, crew, producers and studios in the film and music industries. As such, do not hesitate to contact an experienced, passionate, personable and affordable entertainment attorney here at The Hollywood Lawyer. And that’s my shameless plug for the week. 🙂 Cheers.

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