Though legal counsel must ultimately make a determination as to what encompasses the “rights” with in the words “life story rights” there are some guidelines that every writer and screenwriter can become aware of.
“Life Story Rights” refers to real and imagined rights (creative liberties) held by an individual. These rights generally refer to a persons rights related to privacy, defamation and publicity.
Writers and production companies pay money for the life story rights and others write or make films based on unauthorized use. Unauthorized use is not something illegal, it means that the story and the characters are considered Public Domain or sometimes referred to as PD.
Buying a person’s life story rights is complicated. Even though a person buys the life rights of another, it does not mean that another cannot make or write the story. Many examples are seen with presidents; you may see an authorized biography and an unauthorized biography. Presidents are the cream of crop for public domain and rarely are their lawsuits. Athletes, criminals and other politicians are this way.
Just as the “right to privacy” or the “right to publicity” has no strict definition, neither do life story rights. Often the author or producer pays the person to get cooperation or inside information for the story. Many times a person has secure documents that the writer want to make use of, so an agreement is put in place to obtain these documents.
The First Amendment allows writers to write about public domain characters and allows filmmakers to make movies about public figures. In the movie Frost Nixon, Director Ron Howard speaks specifically to this point in the Directors Cut. Ron Howard, Director, made the movie without any authorization from David Frost, the famous interviewer. Mr. Howard speaks about how he took creative liberty in the dialogue to make the story points, which were valid and true, yet the dialogue imagined.
The Right To Privacy found with the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment and in substantive law and is basically a generic term referring to the right to be free from unlawful intrusion or defamation. Read our page on defamation for more information on Life Story Rights.
The Fair Use Doctrine may also come into play in some decisions involving true and reported events.
According to the Library of Congress, “under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work.” News reporters, bloggers, documentary makers, filmmakers, writers and Internet sites take rights under the Fair Use Doctrine. Fair Use is a little like the Right to Privacy and thus it varies country to country also.
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