Do I need to acquire the film rights for a non-fiction novel published this year detailing events in the lives of people that lived a hundred years ago?
Only what the novel made up. The historical facts are up for grabs. Try to find the original sources for the novel and write from those. Dead people have no privacy rights, nor can you slander a corpse. Anything fictionalized is copyrightable, though.
But watch out for the estate of the dead person... They've got some legal pull I believe.
What? No! Copyright has little to do with the "fictionality" of it. The copyright protects works in a "tangible" medium (that is, written down or recorded in some way, not simply spoken or acted out) and "derivative works."
So, if you are writing a screenplay about, say, Lincoln and you use a historical novel as reference, you are in the clear, but if you use dialog from the book (that the original novelist composed, not that that was contemporaneously reported), you are creating a derivative work and you need permission.
Of course, there are gray areas. Suppose you use the exact same sequence of scenes as the novel. Suppose you adopt a composite character of the novelist's. Then lawyers get rich, instead of you.
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