Private Ownership of Public Facts: Docudramas, Deals, and Life Story Rights

Dave Fagundes - University of Houston Law Center
Jorge L. Contreras - University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law
Vol. 57
December 2023
Page 743

From Elizabeth Taylor to Mike Tyson, celebrities have claimed ownership of their personae. But while the right of publicity and other laws give individuals the right to control commercial exploitation of their images, voices, mannerisms and taglines, the law stops short of recognizing a property interest in the events of their lives. On the contrary, the First Amendment protects producers of expressive works when telling non-defamatory stories about real people. The intuition that exists among celebrities and lay persons alike that individuals own their “life stories” has been fueled by the decades-old Hollywood practice of “acquiring” life story rights from the subjects of docudrama features based on actual events, sometimes for large sums. In this Article, we explore, critique, and propose to remedy the growing privatization of life stories and show that while the life story deal may seem to reflect beneficial private ordering, it in fact creates a significant negative externality by converting an essential part of the public domain into private property, thereby upsetting the balance of shared and proprietary information on which our systems of free speech and creative expression depend. We offer a parsimonious solution to this problem: Congress should enact a new federal statute barring the enforcement of state rights of publicity against fact-based creative productions such as books, films, and television programs, provided that, for private individuals, their name, image, and likeness are altered to protect their identities. Having a single, clear rule that operates ex ante provides uniformity and clarity that will secure the status of life story facts as part of the public domain without limiting the legal protection of individuals’ dignitary, reputational, and privacy interests.

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