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Some Special Copyright Issues

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Inspiration or Plagiarism?

Copyright law protects creations but not ideas. It is prudent to refrain from publishing a good idea for a series, movie, startup, new product, or solution to an existing problem until you've developed a plan, product, or written work, depending on the context.

On the other hand, if you've been inspired by a show you've watched, don't violate its rights. For example, you could write a new series that follows six people residing in New York - a firefighter named Jack, a pastry chef named Michelle, a businesswoman named Gloria, a university professor named Ted, Michael the actor, and Emily the fashionista - and their relationship over the years, but if your six main characters are named Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Joey or Chandler, or if you use famous phrases from the series Friends – for example, “we were on a break!!” – then you may be subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit.

Are you violating rights or simply drawing inspiration? This too is a matter worth consulting with Michal, who in recent years has been studying for a master's degree in cinema at Tel Aviv University, expanding her knowledge in this creative field as well.

The special case of copyright in personal stories in films and series.

Writing about a personal story or historical event: the possibilities and dangers

Are we permitted to write about historical events or other people? In general, historical events provide fertile ground for creative works, for example works written within the historical framework of World War II, whether to convey events as they occurred (for example, Christopher Nolan's 2017 film Dunkirk) or altering the historical details (as demonstrated in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglourious Basterds). James Cameron's 1997 movie Titanic also falls into this category – blending a famous historical event with a fictional love story. Some believe that part of the great success of this film lies in the human fascination with the story of the Titanic.

The personal lives of famous people have also been the subject of films. This category includes the life story of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was assassinated, and whose death served as the basis of many creative works. Vastly different were the lives and deaths of popular stars such as Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, John Lennon and George Harrison.

Bands like Queen and the Beatles have been the subject of many films, often in collaboration with their surviving members. Elton John produced a film about his own life.

Very prominent people become ingrained of our lives, and occasionally individuals choose to use their life narratives into stories or plays. Such highly recognized individuals take this into account, typically refraining from legal action against creators if their reputation is not tarnished. Part of their reasoning includes the simple fact that these works usually contribute to their fame.

My book, Ringo and I (Pardes Publishing), follows a similar pattern. I incorporated details from the life of Ringo Starr and the story of the Beatles into the narrative of the main character, weaving an imaginary tale enriched with historical elements. I made sure to use only those details widely disseminated in the global media about the Beatles in general and Starr in particular, such as the rooftop performance or Ringo’s drunkenness at the Beatles' Hall of Fame ceremony. This approach stemmed from my sincere love for the Beatles and Starr, as well as a proactive measure to avoid potential defamation lawsuits. I brought the book to Ringo Starr’s attention and even sent him a copy, and I am pleased to report that I have not faced legal action.

Indeed, when writing about real events, the risk of a lawsuit generally does not arise from copyright issues. Individuals have the right to privacy, and disclosing their personal details without consent can lead to legal consequences. When a movie depicts an individual’s life story, the individual is typically compensated for granting permission to use their life story. This compensation is usually a one-time payment, restricting the individual from reselling their life story. In some cases, however, the production company may agree to provide a share of the profits. I have also handled such cases, and you are welcome to contact me for assistance on these matters as well.

The hazards faced by writers who delve into real-life events and individuals, both deceased and living, include the risk to lawsuits alleging violations of privacy and defamation, as per the Defamation Law. For instance, the movie The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, was released in 2010. Aaron Sorkin penned the script based on the book Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich (2009). The movie portrayed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a less than favorable light, depicting him as a ruthless young man who prioritized success over friendship. The movie’s poster even explicitly states, “You don't get 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Mark Zuckerberg did not like the result, to say the least, even though the producers gave Zuckerberg and Facebook representatives a chance to review the script and provide feedback to mitigate potential legal issues. Although large portions of the film were based on public court documents, which are exempt from the Privacy Protection Law and not grounds for defamation claims, Zuckerberg arguably had a case for defamation but ultimately decided not to sue, claiming that the film had tarnished his good name. Instead, he has spoken out in many places, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, saying, “The film is largely fiction, my life is not that dramatic.”

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