We’ve all seen a sensationalist news story and thought – that would make a great movie. What are the legalities? Entertainment lawyer Christopher Schiller discusses some of the basic legalities of “based on a true story” but as always with legal advice found online – to be sure, CONSULT AN ATTORNEY.
First let’s start with the basics. Usually, if we’re lucky, news stories are based upon facts. Facts are NOT copyrightable – opinion and expression are. Contrary to popular opinion, newspapers don’t own the news. (Unless they make it up, their published fiction is theirs to license, but, that’s another article.) They just own their particular take on the reporting of it. (We’ll get back to this.)
If all of these pieces of information are truthful facts, then there is not much expression in the story that can be protected by copyright. Can a writer take these facts and put them in a script? As far as the facts go, yes, though it wouldn’t be a very interesting movie. Suppose, though, the writer decided it was a great starting point for a story, say where the movie version of Jim Brown learns from this incident that he has superhuman healing ability and becomes a superhero? Can that story be told, maybe even stating that it is “based on true events” without legal issues? Again, it depends.
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