Q: I'm writing a modern spec screenplay based on a true story I discovered through Internet research, and based on interviews with two participants int eh events depicted in the story. The interviewees both eagerly agreed to participate, and have not asked for anything in exchange. However, it's been emphatically recommended to me that I seek their “life rights”. Since my economy probably won't allow me to purchase those rights prior to selling the script, what other alternative is there that serves the interests of both parties? Naturally, I'm willing to share a slice of my pie if I make a sale. I'm also willing to sign that I will not use or publish this script in any medium if it is not sold. What do you recommend I do?
A: The advice you've received is good, so far as it goes. You SHOULD obtain a written contract from the interviewees, which grants you the right to write, develop and exploit your screenplay based in part upon events of their lives. If you're planning to use their real names, etc., the agreement should also grant you those rights. This is usually called a “life-rights” contract. Like any deal for literary or underlying rights, a Life Rights deal can be structured as an option, with a small (sometimes as little as $1) payment due upon signing to secure the exclusive right to later purchase the rights for a pre-negotiated fee. This way, you take only a small risk at the outset, but can proceed with writing and shopping your script, safe in the knowledge that the rights are under your control, at least until your option expires. Then, if you're successful in selling to project, your subjects will be properly rewarded for their involvement and assistance.
I do not recommend that you agree to share a portion of YOUR compensation, nor that you make promises NOT to publish or otherwise use the script unless it's sold. You never know what will happen. With an option agreement, you have some flexibility, which in a changing and evolving media industry, is a good thing.
This is not, I'm afraid, a do-it-yourself type of deal. You'll need to have an experienced, knowledgeable entertainment lawyer help you draft the agreements and tailor them to the specifics of the situation. The good news is that it shouldn't be unreasonably costly to do so.
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