Q: I have a question that I’ve been toiling over for months. I’ve done some research on it and cannot find a clear answer. I’m beginning to work with a writer on a screenplay on someone who died about 20 years ago. She has surviving brothers, but her parents are dead and she never married or had children. What type of life story rights do we need to acquire to tell this story — a screenplay that could potentially turn into a feature film? I guess the first question should be do I even need to buy or acquire the life story rights? Can I just change her name?
A: First of all, there is really no such thing as life story rights. There is the right against being defamed. There is the right against certain private facts about you being publicly disclosed without your permission — the New York Times would be violating it if its reporter sneaked in your bedroom, copied your most secret diary entries, and published them. And there are certain other rights of this nature. But there is no life story rights. When you buy life story rights, what you really “buy” is a promise from the subject of your story that they will not sue you for defamation or any number of other possible violations of their privacy rights.
In theory, you can make a movie about anyone alive without obtaining their “life story rights,” as long as the movie doesn’t defame the subject and doesn’t violate all these other privacy rights. In practice, that’s hard to do and no matter how much you try not to violate these rights, you can’t stop someone from alleging you did. So practically, in most cases, when a movie is made about someone alive, “life story rights” are acquired.
Now let’s focus on the dead. Perfect timing — Halloween is less than a month away. The dead can’t be defamed. The dead have no rights of privacy. The dead have no say about how they’re portrayed in movies. You can say anything you want about the dead, true, false, or in between. Well, not all of the dead.