Buying the life rights can be highly advantageous in a project. That’s why most of the big budgeted movies go ahead and buy them, but they can be pricey, and as more and more filmmakers are creating low budget documentaries, the question of whether or not life rights are necessary to purchase arises. The answer is simple: it depends on what you’re planning on doing.
What are life rights? Life rights are the right to use a person’s life story or a particular event in their life as well as the use of their name, image and likeness. So, if I wanted to make a film about the love story of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, I might purchase their life rights and create an undoubted hit. But I know what you’re thinking: I already know everything about them from E!. Why don’t I just make a movie using those facts? It would still be great and I would save some cash.
Great point. As it turns out, you can make a film about all of the known facts of the subject (here Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively) because facts aren’t copyrightable. For example, Blake and Ryan got married on September 9, 2012. Your movie can show that.
But a lot of storytelling lies in the nuanced details and the things that aren’t necessarily facts, like how they feel about each other or how they actually fell in love. To find out that information, it would be really helpful to be able to talk to the happy couple. Here’s where the life rights come in. The life rights not only give you permission to tell your vision of the story, but it also means that your subject gives their blessing for you to tell it. A bonus perk is that your film's subject cannot sue you if they don’t end up liking your portrayal of them (click here for a list of potential claims involving life rights).
All that said, you can still have a very successful project without purchasing life rights. It really just depends on what your vision as a movie maker is and what you are trying to accomplish.
We have created a life rights analysis sheet which is available on our website here.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.