If when writing a screenplay, you use a quote from a live person that you saw in a magazine article, do you need to get the rights from either the person or magazine?

–Russell

I should always preface these answers with: “I’m not a lawyer, so I could be wrong…” But I don’t.

I can imagine two different instances where this might come up. The first is when you’re using the quoted material in reference to the speaker himself. So if your scene has dialogue like:

TOM Why sell yourself short? As Donald Trump says, “As long as you’re going to think anyway, think big.”

In this case, you’re attributing the quote to its creator. In my personal, non-lawyer opinion, you’re pretty well protected without getting any additional permissions from anyone. The only thing to watch out for is that the comment couldn’t be seen as defamatory in the context you’re using it. For instance, an otherwise innocuous quote used as a racist insult should set off red flags.

Another scenario might be using a quote without attributing its source. Here it gets a little stickier. For instance:

UNCLE PHIL You can put wings on a pig, but you don’t make it an eagle.

It’s a somewhat funny line. It’s also a direct quote from former president Bill Clinton. While someone of his stature probably wouldn’t have the inclination to hunt down a screenwriter who stole his line, another man with more time on his hands just might. The question of fair use certainly has some merit here, though it’s hard to say exactly how you’d go about documenting your legitimate usage. An on-screen footnote? A bibliography printed on the back of the ticket?

Honestly, it doesn’t come up that much. While we’re all familiar with ugly cases of plagiarism in which book authors have lost a lot of esteem, that’s just not the movie business. My advice — which tends to be my advice for most of the rights-oriented questions I get — is to do whatever you need for your script. At the time anyone expresses interest in making a real movie out of it, bring up these concerns with whomever is handling the legal affairs on the film. Let lawyers handle the law. You have plenty to worry about as a mere screenwriter.