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May 24, 2022 | EntertainmentFrom the blog

Life Rights Agreements – What You Need To Know

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Carlianna Dengel

Associate Attorney


You are a creative person who has found out about someone with a compelling story and you’d like to develop a book, TV show or film based on his or her life.  But in the middle of your excitement and creative rush, it hits you: “Maybe I need to get permission first… but how?”  Here is what you need to know about life rights agreements, how they can help you develop your project and minimizing the risk of problems down the road.


Life rights are the permissions required to use the personal details and characteristics that make up someone’s life, such as their image, name, likeness and experiences.


Simply put, a life rights agreement, also called a life story agreement, is an agreement that grants a person or company the right to purchase and develop someone else’s life story into some type of media.  Getting permission to tell another person’s story is important, as almost every state recognizes a person’s “right of publicity.”  A person’s right of publicity allows that person to prevent the unauthorized commercial use of her name, likeness and other recognizable aspects of her life.


If you are the one trying to tell a story, an LRA decreases the possibility of a lawsuit in connection with your project.  When a person signs an LRA, he gives a writer, filmmaker, studio or producer permission to tell his story and promises that he will not sue for invasion of privacy, defamation or other potential claims.  The agreement may also contain adaptation rights, which can help facilitate your project because you won’t need to try to go back and secure those rights later.  Adaptation rights allow someone to create a derivative work, such as a film, out of a preexisting work, like a written biography.

An LRA may also be beneficial to the person whose life story is going to be told.  If you have a life story you believe is marketable, packaging an LRA with adaptation rights can help make it more attractive to creative professionals.  An LRA also gives you a measure of control over how your story will be told.  By negotiating and working with the creative team interested in your story, you can be more certain that they know what they are doing and know more about how they are portraying you and your life.


Overall, the LRA should address a broad range of rights, such as moral rights, assignability and the right to sue.  The person receiving the life story rights should have a provision in the agreement granting exclusive rights to the life story, as well as to any photographs, documents or other media related to the life story.  This helps to ensure that the subject of the life story does not grant others the right to produce adaptations of his or her story.  Other provisions could require the subject to make public appearances and participate in marketing efforts for the project.  This can work well for both parties because the subject is still included and may draw attention, while the filmmaker or producer still maintains all exclusive rights to the story.  Sometimes LRAs grant the subject the right to approve the project, again giving the subject a measure of control over how his or her story is being told.

The filmmaker or producer should be given the rights to fictionalize or change names of characters.  It would also be beneficial to get releases from the subject’s family members or anyone else that might be an essential part of the project.  If this is not possible, having a provision allowing the filmmaker or producer to change characters would allow them flexibility, while preventing issues that could derail the entire project if a crucial subject of the story objects to use of their name or likeness later.


What if it is impossible to get a signed LRA because the subject has already passed away?  In such cases, state law will determine how you proceed.  In New York, deceased persons hold their right of publicity for forty years, provided they were domiciled in New York at the time of their death and died after May 29, 2021.  About twenty other states have similar laws. California, for example, recognizes a continued right of publicity for deceased persons up to seventy years after they die, while Tennessee recognizes the extended right of publicity for ten years after a person’s death.  In such states, permission may have to be obtained from that person’s estate.


You are ready to move forward with your new project and getting an LRA sounds like the next logical step.  Now what?  If you are interested in getting an LRA, you should consult an attorney.  An experienced legal professional can walk you through the terms of an agreement and advise you on your specific situation.


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