Judge Reminds Documentary Makers You Can't Copyright Facts

from the once-again...-with-feeling dept

In the past, we've discussed the oddity that moviemakers often purchase the rights to true stories before making movies about them. There's really no legal reason for them to do so -- as you can't copyright factual information. Anyone can make a movie based on a true story without purchasing any kinds of rights. Now, there may be some business reasons for doing so. Licensing the story from either those who were involved or who initially reported on it may allow you to have those people more involved in making the movie itself (though, that could just be handled by hiring them to advise, rather than "licensing" the story). Still, it did seem odd that it was so common for true stories to be "sold" this way.

Now a judge is reminding people that true stories aren't copyrightable. Rose M. Welch points out a ruling from a lawsuit filed by two filmmakers who had made a documentary called Ashes to Glory: The Tragedy and Triumph of Marshall Football, about the 1970 plane crash that killed the Marshall University football team, and the aftermath where the school tried to rebuild its football program. A few years ago, Warner Bros. made a (non-documentary) movie called We Are Marshall starring Matthew McConaughey about the same story. No one denies that Warner approached the documentary filmmakers about licensing their work -- but no agreement was reached.

The documentary makers then sued Warner for copyright infringement when their movie came out. However, a judge has dismissed the lawsuit, noting that you can't copyright facts, and most of the material in the film could easily have been gleaned from public news stories concerning the events. The judge also pointed out that We Are Marshall was heavily fictionalized and contains plenty that is unrelated to the documentary. As the judge noted: "Even though the two works have the same story as their subject, they are not substantially similar as the phrase is used in copyright jurisprudence."

It will be interesting to see if this leads studios to be less willing to license stories before making movies. This ruling also could mean bad news for the woman who claims to own the rights to the play Jersey Boys, as the situation there is pretty similar. Warner Bros. put out a statement saying how wonderful this decision was, though the company has its own history of overly aggressively trying to enforce its copyrights.

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  1. identicon
    Kevin S. Brady, 24 Oct 2008 @ 5:51am

    Re: errr ok so your saying

    Sure it can. While the underlying bare facts themselves are not copyrightable, the encyclopedia's presentation (in words, diagrams, photos, etc.) of those facts can be.

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