Do you own the rights to your life story?

Rights, Celebrity, Money, News

Being famous isn’t always easy. Just ask Tom Cruise or Aretha Franklin.

Cruise has filed multiple lawsuits and made threats to protect his reputation, perhaps most famously threatening Viacom for broadcasting South Park’s “Trapped in the Closet” episode, which took its satirical premise from Cruise’s long-rumored (and long-denied) homosexuality.

Franklin, meanwhile, threatened to sue her former ghostwriter, David Ritz, after he published a book that included not so flattering content which he said Franklin cut from her autobiography, From These Roots. Ritz took what was excluded and compiled them into Respect—which, to Franklin, was a disrespectful representation of her life story.

Famous or not, exactly how much of your life story is within your control?

Who has legal access to my life story?

You may think you solely control the right to publicity to your own life—the right to control and profit from your name, likeness, image or persona—but it’s not quite that simple. Barring libel or invasion of privacy, you have no recourse if you disagree with how you are depicted on screen or in a book. How do you think the phrase “unauthorized biography” originated?

Generally, as far as the law is concerned, the privacy rights of life stories are categorized based on whether a person is dead or alive, a public official, public figure, or private citizen, and if related events are considered newsworthy, private, or public matters.

Public officials and public figures have the fewest privacy rights. Since they are in the public eye, their life story is viewed as something of an open book. To prevail in a lawsuit, these people have to prove that they were maliciously libeled—meaning the statements made about them were not only false but that the party who published the statements knew they were false and proceeded anyway with malicious intent.

Living private citizens have the greatest privacy rights. They need only prove that a writer or filmmaker was negligent in publishing the false content. But even private citizens can find their life story spinning out of their control. For example, if you were involved in an event that received significant news/viral coverage, you don’t own the rights to facts that were made public—information that was “disseminated for informative purposes.” Facts cannot be copyrighted or trademarked.

And after you die, your life story rights do not fall to your estate. As entertainment law attorney Mark Litwak states in his book, Dealmaking in the Film & TV Industry, “A writer could publish a revisionist history of George Washington, portraying our first President as a child molester and a thief, and his heirs would have no remedy.”

How can I protect my story?

So what aspects of your life story rights are within your control? Anything not disclosed in court records, news articles, or not already available to the public, for starters.

Of course, public officials or people thrust into the limelight, referred to as “public figures,” can be exempt from claims to rights of privacy. And, not to make a federal case of things, but the right of publicity differs from state to state. What is considered private in one state may not be classified as such elsewhere.

If someone writes or broadcasts something defamatory about you in the form of libel or slander, the law definitely is on your side. However, defamation law is not without its complexity and may not always result in a financial penalty.  In such litigation the court must weigh the balance of freedom of speech with the right to protection against harm to your reputation.

Shouldn’t I get compensated?

It may seem unfair, but there are scenarios in which a film or book could tell your story, yet you don’t receive any compensation whatsoever. While you may be one in a million, that doesn’t necessarily mean your life story is worth a million dollars. But what if a filmmaker or television producer comes knocking, and there’s real money to be made? Or what if you’re interested in the life rights of someone else? How much can you expect to pay or receive?

Again, the value lies in the eye of the beholder. Dina Appleton, in her book, Hollywood Dealmaking: Negotiating Talent Agreements, life story rights for television programs typically range from $25,000 to $100,000, and from $100,000 to $250,000 for motion pictures. But the upfront payment could be significantly less—as little as one dollar—with full payment contingent upon the program or film actually getting produced and distributed.

So, yes, it’s quite a broad landscape and examples of famous life-rights stories abound. You can write or make a film about anything you want. But without securing exclusive life rights, don’t expect to profit from it. And you run the risk of getting sued.

So, while the law mainly protects against libel and slander, the ownership of the story of your life depends on a variety of factors. How much of your life is private if you’re involved in a major news event that receives wide publicity? If you hold public office, to what degree can you expect a degree of privacy? And if, like Cruise and Franklin, your fame far exceeds 15 minutes, do you have much recourse at all against others who may profit from aspects of your life story? If you do find yourself in such a position, legal counsel is the best option to find clarity in this murky area.