What is A Life Story Really Worth?

One of the first rules of scriptwriting is to write about your own experiences.  One of the second rules of scriptwriting is to ask whether or not anyone would be interested in your own experiences.  For some people, the third question is really what is the story of my life worth?

Famous people have had a spotted record protecting their own likenesses from being stolen by movie makers (or as some might say, ‘fictionalized’).  “Hustlers”, the new movie starring Jennifer Lopez, unabashedly tells the story of Samantha Barbash, a real-life convicted hustler who ran a ring of female hustlers druggind and robbing rich men in Las Vegas.  Barbash claims that she was offered only $6000.00 for her life story, which she turned down as offensive.  Now that the movie has grossed over $150,000,000, she has brought suit against the movie producers SFX who say that they are entitled to use famous people’s lives and fictionalize them.

If Barbash had brought her lawsuit in California, she could relied on California’s broad “right of publicity” (C.C. Sec. 3344)   This law was created after a California court refused to give the family of Bela Lugosi, the famed movie vampire, rights in his famous persona (“I want to drink your blood”…) after his death in the 1970s.  These laws date back many decades, but have only been formalized in recent years.  New York and many other states now finally have similar laws to California — New York’s was passed in only in 2000 ( (NY CVR § 50)

But even then the law may not be so good for Barbash.  In 1992, Wheel of Fortune spinner Vanna White’s sued Samsung for using a robot cartoon character in one of its ads.  The cartoon was obviously designed to evoke Vanna’s internationally famed image as a glamorous model.  The cartoon character had a blond flipped wig, jewelery and a fashion gown standing next to an upright roulette-type wheel.  However, this wasn’t enough.  The Ninth Circuit didn’t care how much the cartoon looked like Vanna — it felt that no person could have reasonably believed that the cartoon meant that Vanna was endorsing Samsung products.   In short, the law wouldn’t stretch far enough to cover someone’s likeness.

In other cases, famed actress Olivia de Havilland, the man whose life was the basis of The Hurt Locker and the man whose life was the basis for the Wolf of Wall Street have all lost claims like those Barbash is making.

The moral of the story?  Get your story out there first.  Write your life down and file it as a movie treatment with the Writers Guild of America.   It will be a tough battle, and there is a good deal of law against you.  So make it interesting and get to work!  If you need help in working through these issues and protecting your rights, call the Shining Law Firm right away to get started.

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