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small axe
10-20-2007, 06:01 AM
Obvious questions from a newbie -- can someone help with info?

How many details need to be changed (Names? Locations?) to write a screenplay based upon a TRUE CRIME ... without needing to obtain the rights to the murderer's/victim's "life story" ?

There was a murder committed in a nearby town circa 1990 ...

It has already been the subject of at least TWO "true crime" books --

In one book the victim's parents are quoted as saying "We will never allow a movie to be made about this, unless we control the project 100%" ...

Well, okay ... so let's assume I respect that: I won't use anyone's real name, I'll set it in the same State but never reference the town name ...

But if I use the HISTORICAL FACTS of the crime (as reported in newspapers, and the two true-crime books about the case) ... but then create new (imagined) dialogue, add a few peripheral dramatizations ...

Is the screenwriter (or novelist) then clear of the liabilities/responsibilities of using a real person's "life story" ...

Or would I still have to buy the "rights" to the person's story ... even though the names/locations have been changed (using the facts of the case, with added dramatizations and made up scenes) ???

Is there a specific guideline on how much must be CHANGED, to make a true crime into a movie ... WITHOUT buying the rights to the real person's story ???

Thanks for any insights, info or advice anyone cares to share! :)

Billingsgate
10-20-2007, 06:40 AM
Trouble is, in America especially, anyone can (and will) sue over anything. If the crime was widely documented in press and books, and if any character in the movie can be remotely tied to a specific person (regardless of being renamed) AND it can be construed as defamation of character, there is a chance you could be liable. I doubt any jury would award damages just for your not being authorized to tell the story. They would have to prove that not only was there lack of authorization, but that there was either neglect or malicious intent on your part leading to defamation.

But here's the good part: why should you care? You're writing a screenplay! If, Allah willing, any producer buys it and if, Jahweh willing, they hire a director to actually produce the movie, then the problem is THEIRS, not yours. It's up to them to take the precautions to protect the innocent (meaning themselves, of course).

If the story is that good, and if your screenplay is that stellar, then producers and their lawyers will know what they're doing in obtaining clearances and making necessary changes.

It is possible the family has optioned the rights to their story to another producer, which you may be unaware of. That's a trickier issue. But if you don't use their names, and if you call it fiction, then you are on firmer ground. Again, this is a problem for the movie's producers, not for you. If you can in any way check whether they've sold the rights, it will help. Because if a producer buys it from you and is then sued by another company for infringing their rights, you could be held liable (I'm sure any contract you sign with the proucer will make you liable in such a circumstance). In the age of made-for-TV movies about everything, this is the area you need to be concerned about.

Rest assured that if your script is sold, it will be rewritten so many times by other screenwriters hired by the producers, that you won't even recognize it. Your name will still be on the credits as "writer", so you may have to watch your back in any dark alleys.

Finally, if you have a great story, just write it!

tombookpub
10-21-2007, 07:05 PM
I would read the book "The Street-Smart Writer" to help you with your concerns. One of the authors is a AbsoluteWrite guru and the other, a literary works lawyer.

benbradley
10-22-2007, 03:59 AM
I recall some story long ago about writing "real" stories for TV - someone connected with the TV show "The FBI" (as I recall, on TV circa late 1960's to early 1970's) had the idea to do a story of investigating a bombing of a black church in the south where children were killed (for those lacking in Southern US history, that very event happened in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, and was of course a big event in the civil rights struggle). The story did get turned into a TV episode, but very disappointingly to whoever suggested it, it was changed to a white church in the north (thus removing any possible connection to the real story, as well as all racial overtones).

Billingsgate has a point, anyone can sue for anything, and if the suit isn't immediately thrown out as spurious, you 'lose' in that it will cost you real money to hire an attorney to defend yourself, regardless of whether you win the case. Lawyers (the people who make money going to court!) always say it's best (money-wise) to avoid going to court if you reasonably can.

I'd change as much as you could while still making it a "compelling" story, and take a hint from the "FBI" series story (I bet they listened to their lawyers, even though the facts of the case were clearly public domain) - have your story happen in a state across the country, for example - change all names of persons and places, rewrite it so it's hard for someone familiar with the real case to recognize any of the characters in your story as real people. This means essentially rewrite the story from scratch, but I think it would be the only way you'd be safe. IANAL, IANA published writer, etc.

Nymtoc
10-29-2007, 02:02 AM
I'd change as much as you could while still making it a "compelling" story, and take a hint from the "FBI" series story (I bet they listened to their lawyers, even though the facts of the case were clearly public domain) - have your story happen in a state across the country, for example - change all names of persons and places, rewrite it so it's hard for someone familiar with the real case to recognize any of the characters in your story as real people. This means essentially rewrite the story from scratch, but I think it would be the only way you'd be safe. IANAL, IANA published writer, etc.

Benbradley's advice is sound. Change as many things as you can, while remaining faithful to the core of your story. You might make a composite of two or three real people. Or you might introduce a fairly important character (close friend, lawyer, minister, investigator) who didn't exist. Sometimes a gender change can be effective. It wasn't an 18-year-old girl who was murdered on campus, it was a 20-year-old football player. It wasn't a 10-year-old boy who was kidnapped, it was a 6-year-old girl.
Even a significant time change might help if it doesn't distort things too much. Instead having things happen in 1997, as they really did, you could set the story in 1965. Etc.

:)