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“Getting the rights:” What it means; when it’s necessary; how to do it.

So, do you need “rights” to create your project?

So you want to create a new project? Maybe it's a film or play? Or a podcast, a book, or a game, or some other kind of product.

Thing is, it's based on something else.

Somebody's life story or characters from some other kind of previous work.

It's an adaptation or a remake, a reboot, sequel or spin off Maybe it's based on the story, the characters or the “universe” from the other work in which your characters and story exist.

First, it's important to determine whether the underlying material is protected under the law. (“Underlying” is the way we refer to the pre-existing material that something is based upon. And, the “underlying rights” are the legally protected rights that someone may own in that material. )

Our inquiry starts by asking what, exactly, you're adapting, remaking copying or basing your project on, and whether it's actually entitled to some kind of protection. Is it intellectual property? Or is it merely an idea that is embodied within that other item of intellectual property that you're adapting? You see, ideas, facts, concepts and themes are not entitled to legal protection under copyright law. It's the particular ways in which those things are expressed by an author that can be protected.

The events of a person's life are facts, so, they're not entitled to any particular [copyright] protection…

So, suppose you're basing your project on a person and their life story? You need life rights, don't you?

Not so fast.

It's true that in Hollywood, producers often do get people to sign “life rights contracts”, but “life rights” isn't really a thing… it's not a form of property at all.

Remember that I said facts aren't protectable under copyright law? Well, the events of a person's life are facts, arent they? So, they're not entitled to any particular protection (unless they're private and have been kept secret).

So, why then do we hear all this talk about purchasing life rights?

Simple: Fear. Risk management.

When it's possible, we do a life rights deal with the person who is the subject of a project to avoid the risk and expense of lawsuits claiming that the project invades their privacy, or is false, and thus amounts to libel (defamation). What the purchaser gets in a life rights deal are: (1) A promise not to sue; (2) access to the person, their family, photographs, etc. (3) cooperation (and a promise not to cooperate with others), and (4) the right to embellish or change the events and portrayals and even to fabricate things. That little bundle can be very valuable. But it isn't always necessary. If you're telling a story about a person,that it is true, based on factual events , and does not invade the person's privacy or create a false impression about them, it's quite possible to proceed without a life rights agreement. And thus, you wouldn't need to clear any rights.

Works of authorship created since 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years

But if the work you're using as source material is subject to copyright law, we need to do a little bit of a deeper dive. We have to ask whether they are still protected? Works created more than 95 years ago are not. They've ‘fallen' into the public domain. But most newer works (those created between 1927 and 1977) are protected. And, under the most recent copyright law, Works of authorship created since 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, so they're certainly protected.

Okay, so you've determined that you do, in fact, need some rights. Now what?

Well, the process is actually relatively simple (which is not necessarily to say ‘easy').

We start by identifying the correct owner of the rights that you need. And this is often the most challenging step. Research the copyright office's records, check with the publisher, and sometimes it's even necessary to review probate court records to find the current owners.

Once you've found them, make contact, and just basically, ask for the rights that you need.

How you ask will depend somewhat on whom you're contacting: If you're dealing directly with the the author or the author's heirs, it may be as simple as reaching out with a phone call, an email, or a personal interaction.

But many literary estates are represented by agents or managers or attorneys. In that case, it's best to submit your inquiry your request in writing.

And sometimes, the rights in the material that you're looking for will be owned by a company, perhaps a publisher. In that case, again, submit your request in writing.

What rights should you ask for?

Well, that's as simple as telling them what you intend to do. Are you writing a screenplay? Then you'll want to inquire about the adaptation rights for a motion picture and/or television project. Writing a stage musical? Then you need the rights for live performance in that medium, as well as publishing the play, and even filmed adaptations.

When should you ask?

There are several schools of thought about this. Some say, just go ahead and create your adaptation and hen go get the permission. That way, they reason, you can show the rights holder your work, which may convince them to say “yes”.

But others suggest making just a pitch, a short summary of what you intend to do, sometimes in the form of a slide-deck or a “look book”, along with proposed terms of the deal.

And the third school of thought says that you shouldn't really spend your time, energy, money, or any other resources on doing adaptation work until and unless you've locked in the rights and thus the opportunity to monetize your efforts.

Personally I land somewhere between the second and third options. Craft a simple pitch, but don't invest too much time or energy. There are too many good ideas and freely available materials to spend time and resources without knowing that there's a chance you'll be able to generate earnings from it. Focus on what you can definitely use.


For now, the bottom line is this: If you want to create a project, whether it be a film a play a podcast, a book game, or something else, and it's based on something else that pre existed your work, it's likely you'll need to obtain some rights. Consider this carefully, and don't waste time and energy investing in projects until those rights are secured.

Navigating rights related questions and deal terms is always easier with the help of an experienced entertainment lawyer. If you'd like help, please reach out to us and schedule a consultation.

7 big benefits of registering your copyrights early.

file for copyright

Copyright Registration should happen within 3 months after a work is first published.

Content creators are often so focused on the creative and technical aspects of making their work, that they overlook a key measure which, if taken, can afford tremendous benefits. These benefits are, in fact, so significant, that we recommend content owners establish a practice of registering copyrights, long before any infringement occurs or litigation is anticipated.

What is involved in registering copyright?

To register a copyright, the owner must submit an application to the United States Copyright Office (a division of the Library of Congress), along with a registration fee and a deposit copy of the work itself (which becomes part of the Library of Congress' collection). The application collects certain information about the work, its author and its creation.

How much does it cost to register a copyright?

The filing fees vary depending on the work and method of registration, but are generally low, and as of this writing, for applications filed on line, the fee is $35. (see the fee schedule here to confirm)

Big benefits of registration

Public Record

Registration of copyright, obviously, serves the purpose of providing a way for the ownership of a work to be searched in a fashion similar to a title search performed when purchasing real estate. By making records of copyright ownership public, the registration permits both protection, and lawful exploitation of the works. For example, if a film producer wanted to incorporate a poem into a project, a search of the poem's author and title would reveal the identity of the current owner, and make it possible to negotiate a deal for use of the material.

But for the owner of a work, the benefits of registration go much further. Especially when registration occurs early in the life of the copyright.

Right to sue

Although registration is not required for an owner to simply enjoy the protection of copyright law, enforcing that law is another matter. A copyright owner must, prior to filing a suit for copyright infringement, file a registration the copyright. Some courts require that the registration have been issued by the Copyright Office, while others (including those in California) accept proof that the application has been filed. But, since some remedies for infringement are available only if the registration is filed within 3 months after first publication, the best practice is to register early.

Prima Facie proof of ownership

In court, the existence of a valid copyright registration serves as prima facie proof that the registrant owns the copyright in question… a key element in every copyright infringement action.

Defeats the innocent infringer defense.

Because there's a public record of the existence and ownership of the copyright, a registration will render a defendant's “I didn't realize” defense inapplicable.

Statutory damages

The Copyright Act provides that infringement of early-registered works can result in an award of Statutory Damages ranging between $750 and $30,000 per infringement, with enhanced damages as high as $150,000 in cases of willful infringement. So, while proving actual damages can be quite difficult, and may not justify the time, expense, and difficulty of bringing a lawsuit to enforce one's copyrights, statutory damages might shift the cost-benefit analysis.

Attorney's fees

The Copyright Act also provides that in cases for infringement of early-registered works, a successful plaintiff (copyright owner) can also be awarded attorneys' fees in addition to damages, costs, etc. The costs of copyright infringement litigation can be tremendous, and frequently exceed the amount of money damages which might be recovered. So, the availability of attorneys-fees often means the difference between pursuing the matter, or letting the infringement go unchallenged.

Import restriction

Another valuable remedy only available for registered works, is that the owner can record the registration with U.S. Customs and border Protection, and thus prevent importation of infringing copies of the work. The registration carries with it a legal presumption of the copyright's validity and ownership.

How to register a copyright

Unlike registration of Trademarks and Patents, and many other government filings, Copyright registration is rather easy. Although the Copyright Office's website is somewhat confusing to some, once you get the hang of things, registration can be performed quite quickly. Here's a link to the U.S. Copyright Office online registration system. First-time users will need to create a free login account.

Once logged in, simply follow the steps to complete the form, upload the deposit copy (or receive mailing instructions for physical copies), and pay the required registration fee.

Registration will be dated as of the date the completed application is filed, but the copyright office has, from time to time, experienced quite substantial backlogs. Just another good reason to get your registrations filed as soon as possible after the works are first made available to the general public.


Whether you are a business, or an individual , if you own copyrights, you should make registration a part of your routine, to ensure that all of your works are afforded the most comprehensive protection and remedies available.

Of course, you may have a sufficient volume of works to register, or other complexities that make it wise to engage experienced copyright or entertainment lawyer to handle registration on your behalf. Fortunately, doing so needn't be particularly costly, and represents a wise investment in the protection of valuable assets.


Asked & Answered – Can I use another film’s title or scenes in my screenplay?

Asked & Answered – Can I use another film’s title or scenes in my screenplay?

Q: Cat asks whether it's practical to mention other films' titles, and to quote dialogue or include a clip of a scene from another movie in her screenplay, or will it deter producers from getting interested in her project.

A: My answer in the video below:





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Asked & Answered: Do I have to share?

Q: Patricia Asks:An acquaintance of mine knows I write screenplays and said he had an idea for me. It turned out to be a good one.I wrote a screenplay. The characters, story, and scenes were all mine.I wouldn’t have written it if not for his idea but it was a very broad, general scenario…How much… Continue Reading

Asked and Answered: International Copyright Protection

Q: Vince asks: Does having an IP [screenplay] copyrighted in one country make it binding in another country? In other words, If I copyrighted a script in the US… does that copyright also hold legal status in Ireland? A: AUDIO: TRANSCRIPT: Every country has its own copyright laws, and so things do vary from place… Continue Reading

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