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Asked & Answered: Real Events reported in the media. What rights do I need?

Q: I read an article in a small town newspaper and felt it would make a great movie.  It was about a true story that occurred one weekend to some guys on a trip.  It is the kind of story you might tell some friends at dinner.  It is not a story the writer spent weeks researching.  He heard the funny story and wrote about it.

Also, it is the concept that I believe would make a good story.  I do not plan to write the actual story that took place or claim that it is “based on a true story”.  However, the basic premise would be the same.  Do I need to buy the rights to this story's premise from the newspaper or writer or people that experienced the event?  Or all of them?  Since I do not plan to write their actual story, do I need to buy any rights at all?  At what point does writing about an event requiring buying the rights?

A: Basing your screenplay on true events, as reported in a newspaper or any other media outlet requires a careful analysis of what rights are held, and by whom.

First, the rights of the persons depicted in the story must be cleared.  If the persons to whom the events occurred, or anybody they know, will be able to identify them from the story told in your screenplay, you need their rights.    In practice, when the story centers around one person, the producers of a film will obtain THAT person's rights, and require him/her  to assist in obtaining any other rights that the producers' lawyers deem necessary. (the conservative position of most lawyers is to obtain rights from all involved)

Since you're planning to use the events you read about as a mere jumping off point, you MIGHT get away without clearing the rights, but ultimately, you will have to indemnify the buyer/producer of any film based on your script against claims brought by those you've depicted…You'll also have to disclose the fact that your story is (however loosely) based on real people when you make the sale of your script…  So, you may as well secure their cooperation early.

If you're using any material that was reported by the newspaper, and which might have been uncovered by the reporter's investigation, etc., you will likely need to get a license from the publication and/or journalist.   However, if the story you're telling is coming directly from those who experienced the events, then you probably do not need a separate license.

So, when do you get the rights?  Best practice is to do so before you begin writing.  Otherwise, you risk laboring on the script in vain, if the rights holder refuses to grant you a license or permission to use the underlying material.  Many writers ignore this, relying on the eventual buyer of the script to clear the rights.  Doing this, however,  risks embarrassment if that buyer is unable to clear those rights. (in which case the writer would probably have to refund any payments received, etc.)  One approach might be to put together a treatment  and”pitch” the project to producers with the resources to secure the rights, and to pay you to write the script.

As always, the best advice I can offer is that you consult a lawyer who can explore the full details of the situation, and give you some specifically tailored advice.

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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