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Can I Write a Biopic Screenplay Without Getting the Rights?

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Joe Escalante, Attorney


Can I write a biographic screenplay about the life of a worldwide famous personally without getting the life rights from the individual’s estate? The person is on the level of Charlie Chaplin in fame, with many books and TV shows about them. If I research from those books and shows, do I need to have the rights to use what I find?

– Michael M.


Barely Legal Radio w/ Joe Escalante

Great question. The answer is yes. People do it all the time. If you base your screenplay on facts that are in the public record, such as in newspaper articles, or even books, you have the right to use these facts. You cannot copyright a fact.

If you use private information that has not been made public, you will run into life story rights issues.

Take the case of the Long Island Lolita. There were three TV Movies made from it when I was at CBS. We made one, ABC and NBC both made theirs.

Ours was made from a life story rights deal with the Butafuccos. NBC made theirs based on the life story rights deal they made with Amy Fisher. ABC, however, with limited rights left to buy, made theirs primarily on things that were in the public record.

One thing to watch out for is potential lawsuits from people who have written books about the person. Sometimes they get bitter and say that you used “too much” of their book. Maybe your film starts with the subject getting in a fight on the playground as a child and fast-forwards to him as a powerful world leader meeting with the Pope. If another biography used the same literary device, they might come after you. If you interviewed that author, and offered them money for rights to their book, then the deal fell apart, they will claim you used their book anyway. So be careful who you talk to.

If it’s successful, you can be certain that someone will come after you, but you should be able to defend yourself successfully if you used only things in the public record. Don’t forget to write a small part for me.

For further elaboration on this topic, you can always call my radio show on KTLK Sundays in L.A. where I sit lonely for two hours waiting for anyone to call.

Attorney Joe Escalante answers your legal questions for free on our Facebook page every Tuesday and Friday at 10 a.m. PT.


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November 7th, 2013 at 9:49 am