When doing research for a screenplay based upon an actual event, using various sources, at what point do you have to give credit or get rights?
The underlying issue here is “public domain.” Any writer is free to use the cold hard facts of an actual event, be it a Pennsylvania mine fire or the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Setting aside issues of defamation and the ill-defined rights of publicity/privacy — complications that may or may not apply — you have quite a bit of freedom to tell whatever story you choose. That is, as long as you’re sticking to the facts themselves, and not someone’s interpretation of these facts. But the dividing line is not always crystal-clear.
As an example, the recent film SHATTERED GLASS, which tells the story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, is based on the Vanity Fair article of the same name written by Buzz Bissinger. The article is non-fiction. But Bissinger’s interpretation and structuring of the real-life events — his storytelling — was meaningful, and the forces behind making the movie decided to buy the rights to his article and have their movie be “based on the article by…” rather than just “based on actual events.” (See earlier columns for discussion on how murky the definition of “actual events” can be.)
Could you write another movie about Stephen Glass without owning the rights to that article? Absolutely. TV movies do it all the time. The details surrounding the Glass case are widely available, and as long as you’re not using another writer’s interpretation of the events, you’re pretty well protected.
That said, a producer may decide to get someone’s rights anyway. Many times, producers will want to “lock up” a key figure’s film rights just to scare off rivals. For instance, if Producer A owns Jessica Lynch’s “life rights” (an incredibly vague term that’s used all the time, unfortunately), that doesn’t preclude Producer B from making a movie with a Jessica Lynch character. But it makes life for Producer B much more difficult. While Producer A has much more latitude in his portrayal of Lynch, Producer B must stick to whatever facts are generally known. That makes telling a compelling story more challenging.