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Story rights question

Discussion in 'Copyright, Trademark, Patent Law' started by pabtm, Sep 4, 2001.

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  1. pabtm

    pabtm Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Hi. I'm an amateur screenwriter trying to "break in" to professional screenwriting, and I have what I think is a great idea for a screenplay. Before I spend a lot of time writing it, I want to make sure I'm not going to have any rights issues.

    My concern is: the story is based on a true story, and the main character is a poet who died at the turn of the century (almost a hundred years ago). I'm pretty sure the man's poetry is in the public domain, but what about his life's story? Do I need to worry about securing the rights to that?

    Also, does it change anything that the poet lived in England?

    Thanks for your help!

    pabtm
    Winchester, VA
     
  2. Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler Administrator Staff Member

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    Are you trying to write a biographical screenplay or is it just a storyline based upon a poet's life?
     
  3. pabtm

    pabtm Law Topic Starter New Member

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    The true heart of the story is not the poet's life -- that just provides the context and the texture for the themes that are explored. The screenplay would present a lot of facts about the poet, though I would liberally add fictional elements for dramatic purposes.

    The average audience might be confused about which parts are fact and which parts are fiction, since I anticipate it will have a biographical "feel" to it.
     
  4. Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler Administrator Staff Member

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    So this is a fictional poet that you are creating with some elements of a real poet's life that would be integrated into the storyline? Facts are not copyrightable, only works of authorship. A way to create a safer harbor can be seen regularly on television, for example "Law and Order", which typically uses current events upon which to base a storyline but also contains a disclaimer that the story itself is not intended to be representative of anyone living or dead, etc. You have probably seen such language used many times before.

    I think the poet's work, if used, might present a copyright issue but not necessarily since the poet has been dead for almost 100 years. US copyright law extended from 70 years from the life of the author prior to 1978. You may want to investigate what may be on record in the UK if the work was created there. If so, other laws may apply and, in the hopeful event that your screenplay hits the big time and becomes another "Shakespeare in Love", you would like to be free from international interests looking for a piece of the action.

    What may also be relevant to this discussion are privacy rights, are also referred to as the "right of publicity." Depending upon how close you wish to have your fictional poet resemble the live poet, these rights could come into play. For example, California's Right of Publicity (California Civil Code 3344.1) may extend to a person's estate with regard to their name, voice, signature, photograph or likeness. Life story, however, is not their property -- you could create a story about a great basketball player who wins championships and is the world's most active playboy -- just don't call him Wilt Chamberlain or use a look-alike! :)
     
  5. pabtm

    pabtm Law Topic Starter New Member

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    Michael,

    Thanks for your reply!

    To recap: if I "change the names to protect the innocent," as it were, I should be ok on the life story part, right?

    Regarding the poetry itself -- is there somewhere I can check to make absolutely sure it's in the public domain? How does one verify that for sure without paying a whole lot of legal fees?

    Again, thanks for your help.
     

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