Monday, March 19, 2012

Life Rights Agreement, Releases, and Permission to Tell a Life Story

Dear Rich: For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a non-fiction book about the Holocaust, specifically about two guys who escaped from a concentration camp during World War II and lived to tell the tale. I have done many interviews with them and they support this project and have given me verbal permission to use their story in this book. Nonetheless, I would think that both they and I would be better protected (from literary interlopers?) if we all signed whatever the document is called that gives me the exclusive right to tell this story. I'm not sure what the agreement is called -- a “life rights agreement" or “unlimited – or limited – personal release"? The agreement, as I see it, would also include ancillary rights, such as possible movie or television or other deals in the future; and in those cases, I would think that you do need some sort of legal release from the subjects of such a work. Is there a boilerplate form for this? Is there a form in one of your books? Or should I consult with an attorney? The document you'll need depends on how far you plan on taking this story. Below, we've outlined the range of agreements and what they accomplish. These documents may have different names, and many are referred to as "life rights" agreements but don't place all your trust in the title of an agreement; check that it contains the provisions that you require.

You are writing a nonfiction book about the subjects or making a documentary film and that's all you plan to do.
You would need a release from the subjects in which they agree not to sue you for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, or copyright infringement (in the event that the subject gives you permission to reproduce a copyrighted work). Here’s more about releases and here’s an article about when they are required. An unlimited release would probably do the trick.
You are writing a nonfiction book (or making a documentary film) but you also want to make sure that you have the exclusive right to do so and that the subjects won’t contribute to a competing book or documentary.
You would need the release mentioned above along with an exclusive grant that’s specifically geared to the project you’re working on – that is, exclusive rights to use the person’s persona, materials, and copyrightable works for a nonfiction book or documentary movie. An exclusive grant that limits cooperation with others usually requires a more substantial payment than an unlimited release (which may be granted for nominal payment).
You are writing a nonfiction book or making a documentary film and you would like exclusive rights/access to the subjects as well control over subsequent projects that may flow from your initial project. For example, you seek to control the rights that would be needed if a producer reads your book and wants to make a TV special based on it or a fictional film derived from it. 
This is when you need a life rights agreement signed by the subjects (sometimes called a “depiction agreement”), and you may also want to acquire “adaptation rights.” (This article explains some of the issues.). The life rights agreement is usually based on options – for example, you have the right to exercise an option for certain rights within 18 months or two years and if you don’t, those rights revert to the subject. Life rights can involve a wide range of issues including remakes, sequels, television series, merchandising, live stage and novelization rights. Here’s an example of a Life Rights agreement and here’s an example of a life rights option agreement for specific rights. (And here’s one for sale.) As usual, caveat emptor as we can’t vouch for accuracy or enforceability! An attorney’s help would best preserve your rights. Because you’re in the Bay Area, we would recommend contacting California Lawyers for the Arts.