Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

How to Legally Write a Story About a Public Figure

Legally Write a Story About a Public Figure

Real-life events and real people have been the focus of many feature films, television shows, and novels. As writers, it's pretty much impossible not to draw inspiration from what we see happening around us. Drawing inspiration is one thing, but what if you want to write a piece about a living person specifically? Is it legal to write about any famous person? Today we're going to get into the legality of writing a story about a famous person or public figure.

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Writing About Facts and Events

Facts and events that have taken place fall within the public domain. An individual can't own a historical event. Anyone can go ahead and write about it. When you write about that event in your own original way, your writing is protected by copyright. However, if you're inspired by an article you read about an event, now you've been inspired by someone else's writing. You've been inspired by their take on a real event, which is protected by copyright. Thus you'd have to secure the rights from the original writer to write your own screenplay based on their version of events. Suppose you're writing a story based on publicly known facts that you've acquired via multiple sources because the information is well known. In that case, a legal issue arising down the line is unlikely.

Life Rights

You might have heard about obtaining "life rights" to make a movie based on a real person, but what exactly are life rights? Life rights are an agreement made to use an event that happened in someone's life, details about the person, and their image in some form of media. Life rights can cover someone's life story or just an event that occurred in their life.

You might think to yourself, "I'm a writer. I focus on writing! Shouldn't it be someone else's job to worry about legal issues?" I get where you're coming from, but you ultimately want to sell your script as a writer. Having life rights is very attractive to a studio or distributor because it's one less thing that they have to worry about and less reason for them to say no to your script. Gaining life rights is mostly about gaining protection from lawsuits by your story's subject, and studios like not getting sued, so having that protection is essential to them. It's often cheaper to head off any future legal issues rather than hire a legal team and fight them when they arise.

Not only do life rights mean that your subject won't sue you, but they also grant you access to the subject. You can talk with the subject and get a more in-depth, personal look into the facts about the story you're trying to tell. Their cooperation and being on board with the project are all around helpful.

Now, keep in mind that life rights are not cheap. You can obtain life rights by way of an option, similar to how a producer might option your screenplay. You'd make a down payment in the realm of 10 percent, and only pay the remaining balance if the film or TV show gets produced. But according to the book "Hollywood Dealmaking: Negotiating Talent Agreements" by Dina Appleton, life rights can range from $25,000 to ten times that amount based on whether the story is a TV show or film.

Learn more from an entertainment attorney about obtaining life rights and when you might be able to get around it.

Public Versus Private Figures

When a person lives in the public eye and aspects of their lives are well known, it often becomes acceptable and reasonable to take those facts and write about them without requiring life rights. If a person is dead, then concerns about defamation and invasion of privacy die with them, usually making life rights unnecessary.

A public figure is anyone whose name has become a "household name." Typically, a public figure has sought out some sort of fame or publicity around their image. A private figure has not sought out a public spotlight. Though a private figure may gain fame without trying to, they maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy, so life rights may be required (such as true story featured in "The Blind Side," for example).

What About the First Amendment?

In America, the first amendment pretty much protects a writer and allows them to create their own fictionalized version of real events and people. So why do writers even bother with life rights? Again, acquiring the rights to a person's story makes for a cleaner project in the eyes of a studio. The person your work is based on has agreed that they're cooperating for you to tell their story, so there's less possibility of a legal headache down the road. It's basically a "better to be safe than sorry" situation.

When in doubt

Maybe all this talk about legal issues is stressing you out, and you want to separate your work from the real person it's based on as much as possible. You can change the names of your characters and alter how events play out. Describing your script as "inspired by a real person or a true story" rather than "based on" can also help separate your work from reality. A word of caution, though: despite doing all of that, sometimes a subject will still be easily recognized, and you may remain open to legal action in the future if you didn't obtain rights beforehand.

I wish that I could tell you things are as cut and dry as "Yes, you need to secure life rights," or "No, don't worry about it, just write your story." Every situation is different. Everything ranging from the subject's level of celebrity, whether they're alive or dead, and their family's attitude can all play a role in whether or not legal action can be taken against you.

This is a reminder that I'm not a lawyer. It can be beneficial for specific questions to consult an entertainment attorney who can go more in-depth about the law and give you information regarding your situation. Stay inspired, and happy writing!

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