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August 9, 2018 | From the blogUncategorized

Life Rights – What you need to know

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Update: September 25, 2021

You’ve just discovered someone with a compelling story, and now you would like to make a film based on their life.  You begin the process of turning this amazing tale into a worthwhile film when, in the middle of your excitement, it hits you: “maybe I need to get this person’s permission first.  But, how?”  Understanding the concept of life rights and navigating the purchasing of them can benefit your project and minimize the risk of potential problems down the road.  Here’s what you need to know.

What are life rights?

In the U.S., every state recognizes a person’s right to prevent unauthorized commercial use of their name, likeness and other recognizable aspects of their life.  Some states protect this under the “right of publicity” while others recognize this as a “right of privacy.”

When should you purchase life rights?

Pursuant to the First Amendment, you are entitled to write about and creatively interpret the facts of a person’s life in a film.  However, that First Amendment protection is limited, and if you want to promote your film by using the subject’s name and likeness, it is in your best interest to secure their life rights in order to avoid legal action.  When a person sells their life’s story rights, they are giving someone else permission to tell their story and promising that they will not sue that person for invasion of privacy, defamation or other potential claims.

What should a life rights agreement include? 

It is essential that a life rights contract is thorough and understood by the individual selling their life rights.  The smallest ambiguity can tarnish a project’s image, as seen by a film adaptation of the 2010 Chilean miner rescue, The 33.  Here, the thirty-three miners each signed away their life rights to an entertainment agency before production of the film began.  The miners initiated a lawsuit due to uncertainty regarding (i) their compensation and (ii) ownership of a diary that was used in production of the film.

In addition to preventing a lawsuit, acquiring life rights can strengthen your film by giving you access and exclusivity to an individual’s story.  The person granting life story rights typically agrees to give information that is not publicly available, by providing the filmmaker with interviews, photographs, documents or other media related to their life story.  Contractual provisions could require the subject of the story to make public appearances and participate in marketing efforts for the project.  With this in mind, your agreement may contain an exclusivity provision to ensure that the subject does not grant others the right to produce adaptations of their story.

Consider adding a provision allowing you to fictionalize or change names of characters.  This flexibility prevents issues that could derail your entire project, including difficulty in obtaining a release from the subject’s family members or another person that might be an essential part of the story.

The agreement may also contain adaptation rights, which could fulfill the need to renegotiate and secure them at a later time.

What if I can’t get a life rights agreement? 

If the subject has already passed away, state law will determine how you should proceed.  For example, in New York, the right of publicity only applies to living persons.  In other states, you may have to obtain permission from the subject’s estate.  California, for instance, recognizes a continued right of publicity for deceased persons up to 70 years after death.

How do I obtain life rights? 

The first step in attaining someone’s life rights is consulting with an attorney.  An experienced legal professional can walk you through the terms of an agreement and advise you on the best way to reach your goals for this project.

Photo by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

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