Partner Lisa Callif authored the Law360 article, “To Acquire Or Not To Acquire Life Rights For A Movie,” to establish the real need, or lack thereof, to obtain life rights when writing a script on a true story. Ms. Callif defines a life story rights agreement as a person’s waiver of certain personal rights, and an agreement by them to cooperate and consult in the making of the film in which they are a subject. Historically, movies based on true stories were not made unless the rights to the individuals involved in the story were acquired. Today, the picture is much different with more independent films being produced and financed without studio involvement. Therefore, how does one decide that they need to obtain life rights before embarking on making a film about that person?
Anyone can write about the interesting facts of a person’s life story without obtaining permission, as long as it is in the public domain. What one cannot do is take the way in which these facts are “expressed” or written and use them without permission. However, even when something is in the public domain, it is often a good idea to acquire an underlying property because it is easier to obtain errors and omissions insurance, which grants you access to the mind of the person you wish to convey, and usually provides you with a spokesperson who is familiar with the project.
One of the best examples of the interplay between public domain facts and life story rights is the story of Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old girl who claimed to have an affair with a body shop owner. Three different television networks made her story, but ABC’s telling garnered the highest rating of the three networks without buying any life story rights. The film was based on public domain matter and they saved their money to spend it on a star: Drew Barrymore.
As a filmmaker, whether or not you acquire life story rights for a story based on public facts will ultimately be your decision. So if you feel that you can successfully and accurately tell the story without any help or guidance from the subject, then go right ahead. The law does not require you to acquire the life story rights to do so.