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Legal Concerns in Producing a Film About Someone’s Biography

Filmmakers frequently engage in projects that can take a variety of potential legal turns, it’s really all part of the process. Particularly, when a filmmaker is interested in producing a film about someone’s biography there are a number of legal considerations which must be made ahead of time. As well as those which are made during the production in order to ensure all appropriate laws are followed. However, many aspiring filmmakers and producers that are new to the industry are unaware of the legal implications which can and likely will arise during the course of producing a biography on film.

Authorized vs Unauthorized Biographies

First and foremost, when we look at the legal concerns in the production of a film about someone’s biography the key question is…Do you have permission?

An authorized biography, which is a biography that is shared with permission from the subject. It will certainly have fewer legal implications and potential challenges than the latter. 

If you’re producing a film about someone’s biography that is not authorized and in which you don’t have things like life story rights or other permissions and appropriate releases in place.

You’re almost certain to face a host of legal challenges along the way both during production as well as after distribution takes place.

Choose Wisely

So what’s it going to be? Will you acquire the appropriate authorizations including life story rights or other permissions needed in order to safely embark on the journey of producing a film about someone’s biography?

Or, are you prepared to face the legal challenges, potential lawsuits for libel, invasion of privacy, and defamation? Which may arise out of the quick decision to produce a film about someone’s biography.

Which is not backed by the safety of a life rights agreement, privacy release. And other legally binding contracts which authorize the use of someone’s personal information for the purpose of monetary gain?

Legal Challenges Imposed Against Filmmakers

Producing a film about someone’s biography is bound to result in a variety of legal challenges. Especially when you do not have explicit permission (in writing) to do so.

In fact, the legal challenges imposed against filmmakers who choose to produce a film about someone’s biography without their permission may include:

  • Rights of Privacy
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  • False Light
  •  
  • Right of Publicity
  •  
  • Defamation & Libel

Other Potential Litigation

In addition to these potential legal issues surrounding the production of a film about someone’s biography. A filmmaker may also face potential litigation for copyright infringement if they are not particularly careful.

While filmmakers draw inspiration from a variety of sources, there’s a fine line between inspiration and copyright infringement. And, without the key life rights required to produce a biography about another individual.

There’s a significant risk for copyright infringement. Or at minimum, a breach of confidence.

Rights of Privacy

People, all people, have a right to privacy and to be left alone. They have a right to choose what facts of their life are made public and which facts are held confidential.

They choose whether to publicly disclose certain details of their lives and whether to allow the facts of their life and private interests to be shared publicly. But, producing a film about someone’s biography without their permission takes away their right to privacy. 

Civil Lawsuits

An invasion of this right of privacy may give rise to a claim in civil court against the filmmaker, especially in the event that the claimant feels that the biography in some way disclosed facts that could cause harm to their reputation.

So how do you prevent an invasion of privacy claim from being brought forth if you’re producing a film about someone’s biography? You start by seeking permission!

If you’re recreating a written biography or sharing a story that is already publicly available, obtaining a license or an adaptation agreement can limit or fully eliminate your risk for such lawsuits to be filed.

False Light

A lawsuit for rights of privacy may cite the tort “false light” in which a film about someone’s biography misrepresents an individual in a false light. Which essentially means that the portrayal was incredibly offensive to the individual.

Such an argument essentially accuses the filmmaker of spreading falsehoods about the individual portrayed in the biography.

In accordance with the rights of privacy, the portrayal of someone in a biography film in a “false light” would violate the individual’s right of privacy however such cases generally require proof that the filmmaker acted with malice.

Prevention Methods

So how do you prevent an accusation of false light in an invasion of privacy lawsuit regarding the production of a film about someone’s biography?

The first step is to be diligent in your research and acquisition of rights and releases before production. Before producing a biography film, a filmmaker is expected to carefully examine the information that they intend to use.

And, should avoid revealing any private activities relative to the individual portrayed in the film. Unless those activities are already considered public domain. They occurred in public. Or explicit permission to share such activities was procured and a release form signed.

Right of Publicity

The right of publicity represents another key area in which producing a film about someone’s biography can give rise to specific legal challenges. Especially when the filmmaker does not seek appropriate permissions in advance of the production. 

The right of publicity essentially states that people have a right to decide how and when. And for what projects their name, likeness, and identifying characteristics are used. Especially when money is involved. 

If you’re producing a film about someone’s biography? Under general circumstances, you would not use the individual’s name, identity, or likeness for commercial purposes without their permission to do so. Which is known as a release.

Why?

Because people have the right of publicity and may dictate who uses their name, identity, and likeness and for what projects.

And they will also often have very distinct parameters if they are famous, have built a brand for themselves, and know that you will be profiting from the film that you make.

Unauthorized use of someone’s name or identity in a biography requires permission. The filmmaker needs permission from the person. Unless they’re creating a biography about someone who’s already famous. And whose name and other personal details are already public knowledge. 

Defamation & Libel

Lawsuits for defamation or libel are often brought forth when producing a film about someone’s biography without permission. And without any kind of release from the individual that is portrayed in the film.

Libel is the term that is used if a defamatory statement is made within a film. Which results in injury to an individual’s reputation. Although libel cases are rare specifically in regards to biographies, they do exist. 

More so, defamation cases are likely to arise. As a filmmaker that’s interested in producing a film about someone’s biography, seeking permission is key! If you don’t have permission, the next key area where you can prevent lawsuits from occurring.

Especially those related to defamation, is to do your homework. Avoid sharing anything that you do not know to be 100% accurate and true. Don’t post your opinions of others, and when in doubt consider satire or parody

Copyright Infringement

Producing a film about someone’s biography, particularly if the biography has already been written, requires a license to do so. Otherwise the filmmaker may be sued for Copyright infringement.

Copyright infringement cases frequently arise out of situations in which a filmmaker mistakenly draws inspiration from a biography that is in fact protected by a legal copyright.

If you’re not sure whether the biography you wish to adapt into a film is protected by copyright. You should immediately check with the U.S. Copyright Office. Or the author of the biography.

To determine who holds permissions and has the right to grant you permission to reproduce. Or otherwise adapt the biography for the purpose of your own film production.

In Summation

As you can see, the potential legal concerns when producing a film about someone’s biography are plentiful. Particularly if you choose to produce a biography without explicit consent to do so.

As a filmmaker, it’s your choice whether to seek permission upfront, or not. But generally speaking, doing so will prevent costly legal challenges. Which may otherwise prevent your film from ever achieving distribution. And therefore, should certainly be considered. 

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