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Thursday, September 18, 2008

I am writing a script about a soldier who fought in WWII and passed away recently. While I don't want to necessarily write a story about his life specifically, I do want to use his achievements in battle as the basis for my script. I'm assuming he has living relatives. How should I handle this? Am I safe with just a name change? How much would I need to change his story to not worry about acquiring rights/permission? Do I need to worry about it at all in the first place?
My suspicion is that you are going to change the details so much the guy isn't really recognizable. If what you're doing is "inspired by" true events, I think you're clear, even if your source of inspiration is still alive.

You're right that death is a bit of a dividing line in some rights issues. Keeping in mind that I'm not a lawyer and this is just my understanding: in general, the dead have no privacy rights. I suspect that you could actually tell this guy's actual story and you'd be okay so long as no one in the movie is still alive (readers, can you check me on this?).

Their likeness rights do pass down (you can't put Marilyn Monroe in an ad without talking to her estate) but that doesn't apply here.

You will hear from time to time about relatives suing over this and that. Whether they win their suits is another question. Anyone can find a lawyer to sue about just about anything.

In general, I prefer to go the "inspired by" route for almost anything. People's lives make much better stories when you don't owe the truth anything. Then you can concentrate on the story. Then I don't have to worry about life rights. By the time I'm done with a story, it often has very little bearing on the source material.

That goes for novels, too. I've adapted a bunch of books and by the time I'm done, in most cases, I could just as well have skipped the novel and just liberated some of the insights and ideas and territory (none of which are copyrightable).

Note that public figures have reduced privacy rights. You can make a movie about George Bush without his permission, as Oliver Stone has. Dead public figures have almost no rights -- e.g. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, etc. But their non-public-figure lovers, wives, secretaries, etc., probably still have privacy rights and you'll need them to sign off, or (I'm not sure how this works exactly) make their characters so unutterably bland that they have nothing to complain about.

Where you really need the rights creatively (as opposed to legally) is when you have an "inspiring true story" -- e.g. ERIN BROKOVICH. Sometimes the audience really wants to know that this actually happened, and it's a selling point. Then get the rights. But in most cases, I think you're better off taking liberties with the truth and adapting the truth broadly enough that you don't need anyone's permission.

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