A Reader Asks: I have the rights to do a screenplay on the life of a person, but how do you handle the rights to include other people in life, like an ex-wife and others who may be important to the story. Do you need get their rights also?
Larry Zerner, Esq. Responds:
This is a great question and one that comes up fairly often. Ideally, when you are writing a screenplay about a real person who is not a public figure, you want to obtain rights from as many of the people who will be portrayed in the screenplay as possible. In fact, if you try to sell your screenplay to a producer and you haven't obtained such rights, it may cause the deal to fall apart. You also may not be able to obtain insurance if you haven't properly cleared all the rights.
By acquiring these rights, you have obtained an agreement from these people that they will not sue you if the screenplay or motion picture defames them or invades their right of privacy or right of publicity. If you do not obtain these rights in advance, then you run the strong risk that you will be sued once the film comes out.
If it is impossible to obtain rights from these people, then you should make changes to the character so that they are not identifiable as the real person. However, it may not be enough just to change the name of the person involved. If the character would still be identifiable because of his relationship with the main character (i.e. his boss), then you might need to change the relationship so as to reduce the risk of identifiability (for example, change the boss to a district supervisor).
If a character such as the ex-wife is crucial to the story, do your utmost to obtain rights from her. Otherwise, you should figure out a way to either minimize her importance in the story or else change her character to that of an old girlfriend. Good luck.