Life Rights and Why You Need Them

Whether you depict a biography, document the life of a public or private figure, or create what you believe is a fictional character based on a conflation of people you know, a story always revolves around a person. That person might actually care about what’s said about them.

Even when there is no reason for a person to complain about your depiction of them (since you’re an awesome filmmaker, and your description of them is spot-on), it’s always better to have a signed contract for Life Rights so you can have an uninterrupted production and film clearance process.

What are Life Rights?

A life rights contract is an agreement that allows a filmmaker to tell the story about a specific person, with that person’s cooperation and without worrying about being sued. In order to determine whether or not you need to obtain a life rights contract you should consider two factors. The first is whether the information about the person is public or private, and the second is whether the person is living or deceased.

Public v. Private

Generally, facts and events that occur are public domain. No one can own a historical date or the fact that the sky is blue. Similarly, facts relating to a person’s life are also public domain. If the person in your film is a celebrity, chances are that their life is more public than private. On the other hand, if the person in your film is a private person (and your film will likely be the only reason the public becomes aware of them), then his or her life is not public, and you would want to obtain life rights.

Additionally, no one can own the copyright to his or her own life. As a filmmaker, you can create an original work if it’s based on public facts, but you cannot tell a story that has already been told, in exactly the way it was told.

If you’re trying to figure out where you fall, just ask yourself this: Are you creating your own original story based on facts you already know? Or are you telling a story that has already been told? Even though it’s a good idea to acquire rights either way, if you fall into the latter situation, definitely obtain life rights for your film. If your answer is the former, your work could also be protected by copyright.

Living or Dead

A living person has legal rights against defamation and invasion of privacy. Including a living person in your filmmaking process means he or she will contribute and cooperate with you, while also allowing you to tell their story the way you choose. A person who is deceased cannot bring legal claims against your film; however, their estate can. If the person whose story you’re depicting is or was someone well-known, chances are they have intellectual property that you could use in your film.  In either case, obtaining life rights would be beneficial.

Do you need to obtain Life Rights for your film?

Frankly speaking, no you don’t. However, this would leave you vulnerable in a couple ways. First, if you’re already working with the person who is the star of your film, you run the risk of them backing out and not allowing you to use their story as the basis of your film. If this happens, then you’d essentially be left with no film. Second, if you aren’t already working with the person, then you leave yourself open to potential lawsuits.

So, do you need to obtain Life Rights? No. Would it be a good idea to obtain the rights anyway? Definitely.

By: Diksha Vadan – 08/25/16

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Photo Credit:  Jackie Wonders