Issue 2: Lesson 2—Legal Rights (Part One)

Admittedly, it’s not the sexiest of subjects, but before you get too far down the road with a real life adaptation project, it’s important to be aware of any legal rights attached to the source material you want to base your script on, and to find out if you need permission to use that material. So, lesson 2 in RSL‘s continuing series takes a first look at rights…

So detailed is the issue of rights that it’s impossible to cover it in any great depth here. However, in this first part, we offer a brief indication of the main issues to be aware of, some initial questions to ask, and links to further sources of information.

The basics

In broad terms, a published work will have rights attached (known as copyright). Those rights might belong to the author/creator of the work, their estate (if the author is deceased), or the publisher of the work.

All of this means that for you to legally sell a screenplay based upon a published work (such as a magazine article, auto-biography, or other non-fiction book), you will normally need to have obtained the right to adapt the material. There are exceptions to this:

Works are sometimes ‘orphaned’—this means they have no legal rights-holder (but you may need to prove unsuccessful efforts have been made to trace the owner)

Copyright might have expired— if it’s an old work whose author is deceased and their family/estate has not renewed the copyright you may be on safe ground (copyright duration varies between countries)

The material might be in the ‘public domain’— some works are copyright-free and can be used without permission: for example, works issued by governments are often in the public domain (as is, ironically, the ‘copyright’ symbol used above!)

Finding out who owns the rights

Sometimes finding the owner of the copyright to a particular work is easy. If it’s a book, it’s probably either the author or publishing house; if it’s a newspaper/magazine article, it’s likely to be the journalist or publisher of the title. At the very least, you’ll have a name and contact details.

However, it’s not always that straightforward. Tracing the rights-holder may require an online search and/or other investigative techniques, such as tracing literary agents or representatives of a deceased’s estate. Online tools that can help you in your search are:

The WATCH database: a searchable database of writers and artists copyright holders (there’s also the related FOB database containing information on publishing houses and literary agencies that are no longer in business)

Writers’ Guilds: useful for finding the contact details of writers (links to the UK/US guilds can be found on our resources page)

Government departments/offices: such as the UK’s Intellectual Property Office or US Copyright Office (the latter also offers a copyright search facility)

It’s is really a case-by-case situation. Once you’ve identified the work you need to obtain permission to use, you can start the process of finding the owner.

When do you need permission?

Before you start panicking, think about what material you actually need to source in order to write your script and how you can access that information. Maybe you have no choice but to attempt to obtain rights, but other options could be available:

Put on your journalist’s hat and interview the subject/experts yourself—base your script around what they tell you (and keep the tape/transcripts as evidence): bear in mind that if you want to tell the life story of a live/deceased person, you might still need to get explicit permission from the subject/their estate

Put on your historian’s hat, turn to the bibliography section of the non-fiction book you want to adapt and track down the same resources as the author used—assemble the story yourself using publically accessible historical documents: who knows, you might even uncover new and more interesting details that shift the focus of the story

Base your story on materials that are in the public domainthis site a good place to start looking

Change the details—‘based on’ and ‘inspired by’ are not the same thing: plenty of films take a real life event and spin it into an entirely original screen story with names and other key details fictionalised(take a look at this issue’s themed list for inspiration)

Remember that most screenwriters need to utilise a variety of sources and tools in order to research their script, so think carefully about the real life story you want to adapt and how you can best acquire the information you need in order to transform it into an effective screen story.

Bear in mind that if you’re telling your own (or your family’s) life story, or adapting material you wrote yourself then permission may not be needed. However, if you assigned those rights to someone else—e.g. you wrote an article for a magazine and the publication who printed it owns the rights—then the copyright rules might still apply. If so, you’ll need to contact the legal owner and secure the right to use the work.


If you’re serious about adapting a real life story and getting the script to screen, ‘legal rights’ is a topic you really need to get your head around, as getting it wrong might, at best, prevent you from selling your script, or at worse, land you in some legal trouble.

Just remember that when embarking on a fact-based screenplay, you need to find out:

a) if you’ll need to secure rights to any source material;

b) if so, who those rights belong to rights belongs to;

c) whether obtaining rights to use the work is viable (more on this in lesson 3).

Further information

As we mentioned at the beginning, this is a broad subject about which many books, articles and websites have been written. Here are a few resources you might like to take a look at:

Public Domain Review: Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online

Script Magazine: Is History Copyrightable?

Find Law: Determining Whether a Work is in the Public Domain

UK Intellectual Property Office: Using Somebody Else’s Intellectual Property (Copyright)

Copyright Licensing Agency

A useful book on the subject is: The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know by Stephen Fishman JD (NOLO; Twelfth Edition, 2014)

The next lesson will look at the process for obtaining permission to use copyrighted material.

Issue 3 will be available on 22 June.