Patrice from Los Angeles asks:
I'm currently writing a screenplay that I'll be directing myself in about 10 months. I would like to use a Frank Sinatra look-alike to sing 3 ORIGINAL songs in the STYLE of Sinatra. Is that a copyright violation? Do I need to get approval from the family of Sinatra before I can use his likeness?
Larry Zerner ESQ responds:
This is an issue that comes up quite a lot, and you were correct to spot this as a potential problem. But I don't think this is something you have to worry about.
Using a celebrity look-alike in a movie would not constitute a copyright violation, as nobody owns a copyright to his or her appearance. And since the look-alike will be singing original songs, you don't need to worry about violating the songwriter's copyright.
However, if you were going to have Spiderman or Mickey Mouse appear in your movie, that could lead to a copyright infringement lawsuit because the characters themselves are copyrighted (although there are exceptions when the characters are parodied, which must remain the subject of a future article).
Another issue that arises when portraying real people in your movie is a possible lawsuit for defamation. If all the celebrity is doing in your film is singing, then it doesn't seem possible that it would cause a defamation claim. Also, if the celebrity is dead, you don't have to worry, because the dead cannot be defamed. But, let's say that instead of Frank Sinatra, you had a scene where Barbara Streisand robbed a bank. Barbara could sue you for falsely portraying her as a bank robber.
Because you're directing the film yourself, you need to make sure that nothing in the film will get you sued. But for most writers, I would tell them to not worry so much about the legal stuff, and just write the best script they can. If the script is good, the producer will figure out a way to make it work. Look at Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). He writes incredible stuff with celebrities doing amazing things (John Malkovich has a portal into his brain! Susan Orleans is a drug-dealing murderer!) But because his scripts are so creative and original, the producers were able to convince the celebrities to give permission to use them as characters in his movies. Good Luck!