Q: Let’s say I’m writing a script for a film on the life of Mister X, a public, historical figure. In the process of doing my research, I run into interesting details about the life of Mister X in a non-fiction book (let’s call the book The Real Life of Mister X), and I want to use some of these details for my story. Do I need to contact the writer of The Real Life of Mister X and ask for his permission?

A: You’ll be happy to know that facts are not protected by copyright. I’m the only entertainment lawyer to climb Everest. That’s a fact. But it’s not protected by copyright. You can use it in your script, free of charge and without my permission. The interesting details you discovered about Mr. X are nothing but facts about him that you can freely use.
Continue Reading Q&A: Can I Take Details From a Non-Fiction Book Without Worrying About Copyright?

With 4 out of 10 of the top rated TV shows of 2009 being considered “reality” programming, the emergence of “reality” films like Borat ($261 million in world wide box office) and the Jackass movies (over $164 million, collectively), and a certain dowdy Scottish church singer riding a British talent show to 93 million YouTube page views and nearly 9 freakin’ million albums sold, the staying power and lucrativeness of “reality” is undeniable.

Despite its financial success, reality production has always been viewed as the less attractive, less educated stepchild of the entertainment family. And, like other children who’ve experienced the sting caused by not being their parents’ “favorite,” reality productions have had their fair share of binge drinking-induced bar fights and run-ins with the law. Since the early 2000s, the courts have seen an increasing number of lawsuits against reality production companies and studios, brought by both cast members and the mere civilians who have dared cross their paths. The suits have ranged from the expected rights of publicity and defamation claims, to more serious and violent claims, such as assault and battery.
Continue Reading Covering Your (Jack)Ass: Lessons on the Reality Liability Waiver

Filming began at the end of May for the movie Winnie, a biopic about the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, with Jennifer Hudson in the starring role and Terrence Howard as Nelson Mandela. But these days, what director could start the cameras rolling without a demand letter already in hand? Lucky for Darrell Roodt (and for entertainment law bloggers everywhere), Madikezela-Mandela’s lawyers stepped in, threatening legal action because she “would like to see the script and approve.” Roodt, for his part, vowed to move ahead with filming on schedule, saying that “[t]he film will be made based on a screenplay that was well researched and without any interference, without any influence from any of the main characters.” Which is essentially a polite way of saying buzz off.
Continue Reading Being Biopic-ky: Or, How Do You Make a Biopic and Avoid Getting Sued?

In 1968, Andy Warhol exhibited his first international retrospective at the Moderna Museet gallery in Stockholm. The exhibition catalogue contained the well-known phrase: “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Warhol repeated that phrase in 1979, stating that his “prediction from the sixties finally came true.” Now that we live in a world in which a video clip can go viral within hours, Warhol’s “prediction” seems more like an understatement — though if Warhol could see the “Numa Numa” guy for himself, he might not actually take much pride in his predictive powers.

Unfortunately — or, for those who view the Internet as an all-you-can-eat buffet to their insatiable appetite for attention, fortunately — more and more people are finding themselves thrust into surprising (and often unwanted) Internet stardom. So, what can you do if you become an unwilling Internet meme? (That is, besides closing your eyes and waiting for your 15 minutes to expire.) Well, it depends.
Continue Reading An Unwelcome 15 Minutes: What Can You Do?

A few weeks ago, Chloe Sevigny got herself in hot water for calling this season’s episodes of HBO’s series Big Love “awful.” Not surprisingly, Chloe immediately apologized, claimed she was quoted out of context and provoked and tried to make nice with the show’s producers. Of course, Chloe wanted to keep cashing those fat HBO paychecks. But, could HBO really can her for simply stating her opinion? I mean, this is a free country, isn’t it? Of course it is! And also not.

Many agreements in Hollywood contain what are known as “non-disparagement” clauses. These contractual provisions are designed to prevent people involved in films and television shows from creating negative publicity and interfering with the studio’s spin machine. For example, NBC used a broad “non-disparagement” clause to prevent Conan O’Brien from saying what he really thinks about NBC, Jay Leno, or NBC head honcho Jeff Zucker, or subjecting them to a proper dressing-down from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. (Fun fact for those on Team Coco: type “Jeff Zucker is a” into a Google search box and see what Google’s autocorrect suggests!)
Continue Reading You Can’t Say That!! (Or, Maybe You Can, But You Shouldn’t)

Q: I have recently optioned the autobiography of a person that I’d like to use as the subject for a feature film. In the last quarter of the book, a historical figure whom my subject served with in the military is featured in a number of scenes. Do I have to get clearance from the person’s estate before using them in the script? I assume the author got permission to use her story in his book, but does this permission extend to a film?

A: Judging by your question, I think I can assume that your historical figure is truly historic (i.e., he or she is history). Either that or you are pondering getting clearance from someone’s large house. I’ll assume the former. The fact that your person of interest is an historic figure and is no longer with us makes your question much easier to answer.
Continue Reading Q&A: Is It Possible To Defame The Dead?