Many thanks to lovely Bang2writer James Hickey who asks this question:

Do you know if there are any copyright laws or what have you regarding true stories one would read on the internet, or maybe have told to them?

“Based on a true story” can be problematic… but only largely cos 9/10 it’s not really true. Take the movie Wolf Creek for instance. What was that based on? The Peter Falconio case *maybe*… But it felt like a tenuous link really, more in a “murder in the outback” kind of way (and “murder in a remote place/forest/desert/etc has long been a staple of the genre anyway). The “based on a true story” tag here seemed quite exploitative to me and made me feel rather uncomfortable, especially when writer-director Greg McLean admits to writing the script BEFORE even hearing about the case. But the “true story” tag can get bums on seats in a marketing-sense for sure, especially the ghouls when it comes to horror.

Seems to me true stories are fair game copyright-wise – IF the participants are dead and we’re talking historical pieces. Back in 2008 I heard Peter Broughan of Flying Scotsman Films speak at Mead Kerr’s course, The Art & Business of Adaptation. Flying Scotsman Films made Rob Roy, a biopic of a Scottish folk Hero also known as “The Scottish Robin Hood”. Peter was of the opinion a good biopic of an historical figure “told lies to tell the truth” and having read many, many historical adaptations as specs and for prodcos, I’m inclined to agree with him. It really does seem sacrificing facts for drama is vital here. Read the original write up of Peter’s talk here. The one exception here is DON’T lift entire chunks from published biographies of said historical figure, as the authors *may* have a case for plagiarism.

It starts to get muddied however when we’re talking about people living now or in “near history”. To write a film or TV drama then about such a person, it seems good practice to ask for the participation of the person you’re representing IN the story (or their family if they’re dead). Interestingly, Peter also produced the movie of the life of Graeme Obree, an Olympic Cyclist known as “The Flying Scotsman”. He says he had Obree very much on side in telling his story and this helped the production a great deal. I don’t know if Obree could have blocked the adaptation of his life altogether if he’d wanted to, but it seems very much worth getting people “on-side” if you’re going to tackle “near history”.

There are of course exceptions to the above and one obvious one is the “True Crime” movie. I’m no expert, but it seems to me as if “True Crime” movies rely on the VERDICT of the courts – *if* a person is found guilty, then that is the story which is told (we would of course never be able to film a story that is sub judice or is libellous against someone). If we consider the Meredith Kercher case then, there is apparently a movie coming out soon that neither Meredith Kercher’s parents nor Amanda Knox et al are happy about. Apparently some scenes have been cut, including some graphic scenes of Meredith’s death, but I would imagine it’s unlikely either family will be able to block the release of the movie altogether. Amanda Knox was found guilty, so the movie is so-called “fair game” even if we find it in poor taste. [UPDATE: Now Amanda Knox has been freed on appeal, I’d be interested to know the legal ramifications here regarding the film all the more. … 2014 UPDATE!! Amanda Knox & Her Boyfriend have been found guilty AGAIN! So who knows what will happen next??]

But last of all, what does “based on a true story” really mean? It seems to me that ALL writing is based on a true story in some way – whether it’s based on our own experiences or someone else’s. At the moment I am writing a novel about teenage pregnancy and of course a lot of my own thoughts, feelings and events that happened to me will go into the novel. But it’s NOT an autobiography or all about the problems *I* had as a teen mother. In fact, there are many, many things about it that are as far away from my own experiences as they could possibly get. Yet it’s still based on a true story – mine and ALL the other women I spoke to during my research or indeed all the women and girls I’ve *ever* talked to about facing such an event. Personally I think it’s important as writers we melt our experiences together with others and create something that will appeal not just to ourselves, but everyone: it gives our work a universal quality.

Finally then, adapting a true story you’ve simply experienced, heard or read about needn’t be a legal issue at all. You can take the situation, but change everything else, such as characters’ names, genders, ages, etc… Suddenly you’re home free. But then you have a new problem, for you have a moral issue: will those people you know recognise themselves in your work? Will they be upset? Do you care? Of course, as you develop your work, you may find the story takes its own twists and turns, away from that true story… and then you have no problem whatsoever!

So, to summarise: I don’t believe there are any particular copyright laws dedicated to stopping writers from lifting people’s true stories from their own lives, the newspaper, the web or wherever – AS LONG AS the names aren’t the same in the very least. In the case of historical figures, everything *should* be fine (though do check for published biographies etc, you don’t want to tread on any toes there cos that *can* be a minefield) and always try and involve the person you’re writing about or at least their families when dealing with “near history”.

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5 Responses to How True Can A "True Story" Be?

  1. JJ Cocker says:

    They say writing is editing, so by the time you've cut out the boring stuff, enhanced the facts, the result is nowhere near the truth the idea was built on.

  2. Writing anything based on a living person’s life is a legal minefield. Especially if the story is less than complimentary: you could end up being the defendant in an expensive libel case. And there’s also confidentiality laws to consider, and the Human Rights Act’s protection of privacy which has to be considered.

    So those considering writing a true story, or a ‘based on a true story’ should find these recordings useful. It’s a panel talk and Q&A about the legal aspects of writing true stories.

    Two provisos: it’s from 2008, so the law will have changed – especially as the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act is getting more attention in courts, and libel laws have been reformed.

    Second: the discussion will focus on UK intellectual property law. If you’re legally safe in the UK, doesn’t mean you’re safe elsewhere in the world.

    So, as always when it comes to legal matters, I strongly recommend people get professional advice from a specialist solicitor or barrister. If you can’t afford an intellectual property lawyer, try the unions – Directors UK, BECTU and Equity may be able to help, while The Writers Guild will give legal advice to members (including associates).

    You can also try contacting Own-it – the organisation which made these recordings – for free and low-cost advice.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Great stuff there, ta!

      • Richard says:


        If you absolutely must make a true story about a person, make it about a dead person. They can’t sue you for libel. However, their descendants and family can sue, if the story you tell harms their reputation.

        If you want to do a true story about a person, get them – or their estate – to give you permission to make the film. You’re best off getting a lawyer to draft this agreement, to ensure your backside is protected. This will still be a a big investment of time and energy, but far less than making a film you can’t show anyone, due to being involved in a lengthy and expensive court case.

        For an accessible run-down on the current media law – including defamation, confidentiality and privacy – get a copy of McKae’s Essential Law for Journalists. It’s the media law bible for non-lawyers.

        Also, Directing the Documentary by Rabinger, Theorizing Documentary, and Claiming the Real, are worth reading for those interested in doing a true story.

  3. I would not call true stories fair game. The reason you can adapt true stories without compensating the individuals involved is that copyright does not protect the content of a story only the expression. Therefore, if I wanted to write my own TV show about a relatable psychopath who kills bad people as a way to control his urges there is nothing the creators of Dexter could do as long as I wrote all my own dialogue. If I started to use names or imagery from show I could run into issues with trademark or passing off but as far as copyright is concerned it only protects the expression and not the content so I would be perfectly fine. If taking stories from real life were, an issue the Law and Order franchise would be in a lot of trouble.

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