LIFE RIGHTS & THE FILMMAKER - WHAT THEY ARE AND DO YOU NEED THEM?
Recently at the Edinburgh Pitch / Film Festival a filmmaker asked me a very interesting question about “life rights.” He asked whether he could prevent a media outlet from covering a story about a person or persons in a way that competed with his forthcoming documentary. He wanted to know if his having life rights to a person’s or persons’ story would make a difference. The short answer is “no;” there really is no legal protection of “life rights.”
A life rights agreement obligates the subject selling his/her life rights to cooperate with the buyer. The subject/seller is committing to helping the buyer obtain information about the subject’s life and releasing the buyer from any claims by the subject against the eventual filmmaker, and ideally also to promoting the project. These agreements, however, cannot stop a third-party from taking an interest in the story facts and covering them.
Factual information is not copyrightable. That is not to say there are no copyright theories to protect a documentary from being overtly copied. But there is no legal way to prevent a third-party from using the same true facts and expressing those facts in another work. So, one might want to keep exposure of the story under wraps, if possible, until the documentary is out, and proceed with making an excellent documentary that demands to be seen and won’t be trumped by news segments or other content.
If this issue is coming up for you and you have a concern about being overtly copied beyond the facts, then you may want to discuss with an attorney. Chances are the other party will not copy too much beyond the non-copyrightable facts for there to be legal recourse. And many jurisdictions are not so copyright-friendly to begin with. This would be especially true for documentaries where the content is non-fiction and akin to journalism.
Reprinted in part from IndieWire.com