Q: I want to write a script inspired by several real-life events in my life, but I'm wondering if I need permission from everyone involved or I can just change the events enough to make it new. If the latter, how much do I have to change so that people don't feel like it's their story, too?
A: If the events in question are from your real life, you're free to tell the story, provided you do so truthfully. To the extent you embellish, dramatize, or fictionalize the story, you'll need clearance from all other persons who are recognizably depicted in your script, before it can be produced. Since, as a practical matter, almost all “true story” films and tv shows do some amount of dramatization/fictionalization, this means that you'll need that permission before long.
Note that I said permission will be needed from folks who are “recognizably depicted”. What this means is that if YOU are identified as yourself, then anybody connected to you in a significant way can also be identified. So, if you feature a scene with your 12th grade math teacher, and cast that teacher in an embarassing, misleading or false light, your ACTUAL 12th grade math teacher may have claims against you even if you've changed the names, places, etc.
So, there's no fixed amount of change which will automatically protect you.
What some writers do is make the non-integral characters sort of “composites” of several people, or ‘types' of people, so that no one individual can be identified as the source.
For more integral people, much will depend on how and how much they're depicted in the script.
The good news is that ultimately, the studio, production company, or distributor will make the final decisions on whose permissions are required and whose aren't. Still, it's best if you go into production with all your legal ducks in a row.
The help of an experienced entertainment lawyer will ensure that you have a marketable, produce-able script. The investment you make in getting good legal advice at the outset will be far less than the expense incurred later, when you're trying to close a sale, or release the film.
This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.
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