Who Owns A True Story?

Under general privacy law, the rights to a real-life story of a private individual rest with the individual. If you write a story or article based on that life, you must obtain the person’s permission. On the other hand, if your article or story is based on news reports or trial transcripts, or the individual is a public figure or deceased, generally you don’t have to acquire permission.

If the subject of your story gave you “all rights,” you will be free to sell your article or story to a movie producer. If, however, the individual retained film and television rights, the producer could bypass you and negotiate directly with the individual. More often in these situations, the producer will negotiate an agreement both with you (for your treatment of the event or story) and the individual. The individual generally will receive the lion’s share of the compensation.

Public figures such as politicians, movie stars, and professional athletes have a somewhat lessened right to privacy because of the public’s legitimate interest in their affairs. For example, you may publish a profile of a politician without fear of being sued for invasion of privacy. The story can even include private facts about the public figure, but care must be taken that these otherwise private facts are within the scope of the story.

Don’t confuse an individual’s right of privacy with their right of publicity. Most states now have laws that protect living celebrities, and in some states, recently dead celebrities, from the commercial exploitation of his or her name, likeness, or persona. News stories, biographies, and fiction, however, are protected by the First Amendment. To the extent you portray a celebrity in such works without defaming him or his family — and it is absolutely clear your work is fiction, news, or biography — you need not seek the celebrities’ permission.