Before you decide to purchase the rights to a person’s life story, it is worth considering what you are buying. When you buy the rights to portray someone in film or television, you are buying a bundle of rights. These rights include protection from suits based on defamation, invasion of privacy and the right to publicity. You may also be buying the cooperation of the subject and his family or heirs. Perhaps you want access to diaries and letters that are not otherwise available to you.
If the subject of the life story is deceased, much of the rationale for buying these rights disappears, since defamation and invasion of privacy actions protect personal rights that do not descend to the estate. In other words, people can spread lies and falsehoods about the dead, reveal their innermost secrets, and their heirs cannot sue for defamation or invasion of privacy on behalf of the deceased person. A writer could publish a revisionist history of George Washington, portraying our first President as a child molester and a thief, and his heirs would have no remedy. So when a subject is deceased, a producer has less need for a depiction release. The right of publicity may or may not descend to one’s heirs, depending on state law.
It is also important to consider whether the subject of your film is a private individual or a public official or public figure. Public officials and figures have opened more of their lives to public scrutiny, and consequently more of their lives can be portrayed without invading their privacy. Moreover, public officials and figures must meet a much higher burden of proof in order to establish defamation or invasion of privacy. They must prove that a defamer intentionally spread a falsehood or acted with reckless disregard of the truth.
One should also consider the possibility of fictionalizing a true story. If you change the names of the individuals involved, change the location and make other alterations so that the real-life people are not recognizable to the public, you could avoid the necessity of a depiction release.
Keep in mind, however, that the story’s appeal may be predicated on the fact that it is a true story. In such a case, fictionalization is not a good alternative. Suppose you wanted to do the Jessica McClure story, describing how a Texas community rallied to the rescue of a young girl who fell down a well-hole. Here you would want to bill the movie as The Jessica McClure Story. That is why viewers would tune in.
Terms of the Agreement
In negotiating for life-story rights, there are a number of important issues that need to be resolved. At the outset, the parties must determine the extent of the rights granted. Does the grant include remakes, sequels, television series, merchandising, novelization, live-stage rights and radio rights? Are the rights worldwide? Buyers will usually want as broad a grant as possible. The seller may insist on retaining certain rights.