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Asked & Answered: Can I retell true events from a memoir?

Q: In his memoirs a diplomat recalls a rather funny incident he experienced while serving in an embassy which I believe I could slightly expand and rewrite as a scene in my script, The minute I read it my mind wrapped around it and I could see it's value in adding another dimension to my script. Since the incident was something that actually occurred I didn't think copyright infringement would be a problem. In my story, the scene would also be in an embassy, and that would be the only similarity to his recalled incident.

A: Under copyright law, Facts and Ideas are not protected. So, if the events you decide to re-tell in your script are truly factual, (as opposed to created or embellished by the diplomat in his memoir), you shouldn't encounter any copyright problems… However, the analysis doesn't end with copyright. Even if you're changing the characters names, you must consider whether the story you're relating is so inextricably tied to the particular people involved, that they'll be easily recognizable? If so, you may encounter problems under the right of privacy. Specifically, since you're changing things a bit, you'll need to be careful not to portray the people involved in a “false light”, or to publish private, embarrassing material about them. Also, if your version of the story includes false and reputation-damaging statements about these people, you could be sued for defamation.

Obviously, without reviewing the actual material involved, and your proposed re-telling of the incident, it's impossible to give a definitive answer. A consultation with an experienced entertainment lawyer is really the only reliable way to ensure you're on solid ground.

Gordon Firemark practices entertainment law in Los Angeles, where he helps creatives and business people in show business maximize the value of their work and relationships, protect themselves, and realize their dreams of astounding success. More info:

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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