Q: I am currently researching a story that occurred in the 1700s in France. I have used a number of different sources to put together a time-line of the heroine’s life, from which I have plotted out the story. My question is, do I need to obtain any rights, given that the story occurred more than 200 years ago and I am simply using the research to determine factual events?
Also, once I have written the script, I am hoping to enter it into a screenplay competition. Am I able to describe it as an original work even though it is based on a true story, given that I have come up with the structure and created composite characters and the like?
A: The short answer is: “Probably Not”. Given that the persons depicted in the story have been dead for more than 100 years, it is unlikely that anybody could succeed in bringing a lawsuit against you for telling the story. Of course, I'm not familiar with the laws of every jurisdiction, and it's possible that France or some other country has a peculiar law that might give rise to a lawsuit, so it's worth having an attorney research the situation a bit… but, basing your story on a person who lived hundreds of years ago, and with the events corroborated from multiple sources is about as safe as you can get when writing about true people and events.
It's probably appropriate to characterize your work as an original screenplay, but you should also be clear that it's ‘based on the life of…' or ‘based on true events…'. If you fail to disclose this, you might find yourself disqualified from competition, or worse, refunding the prize if you're later found out. Full disclosure is usually the best approach.
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