copyright of fiction based on the life story of a living/dead person

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  • Main Q: Does the person whose story inspired the author to write a novel, in which this person appears with a different name, has any rights over the novel?
    sub Q a) in the case there was a signed agreement between the author and the person
    b) in the case there was no signed agreement between the author and the person
    c) in the case--regardless "a" or "b"--the person who inspired the story died

    The questions refer to a novel written by a foreign author based on a story told to him by an American who has since died. No signed agreement or any mention of rights transfer exists. The author wants to publish a translation of his novel in the U.S. Could the inheritors of the American sue the author if the translation is published?
  • The person whose story is told does not have any copyright over the facts of his or her own life. Copyright could only be infringed if protectable expression -- letters written by the subject, for example -- were reprinted without permission or the authority of an exception like fair use.

    If the author and the subject had a signed agreement, there might be damages under contract law if the original book violated the terms of the agreement, but it would not be a copyright issue.

    Copyright extends for 70 years after the death of the author (in the US), so it does pass to heirs. But in a case where the story of a life is narrated without infringing protectable expression, there would not be any copyright claim.

    A different issue might by privacy laws and/or a right of publicity. A straightforward biography would usually not violate these rights, but these laws, unlike copyright, vary from state to state. Heirs might have a cause of action if the story, for example, revealed private facts that damaged the subject's reputation. But the continuation of these rights after the death of the subject is a matter of state law; in some states these rights survive the subject's death and in other states they do not.

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