When interviewing a subject for a screenplay do you need to take any legal precautions like having the subject sign a waiver before you start that process to protect yourself from any future litigation?


Generally, if you are telling the life story of the person you are interviewing (or his/her story is part of the story you are telling), you need to obtain a release for material he or she shares with you. This is true even if you plan to use only a few of the person’s experiences. Rights to someone’s life story and experiences can be protected by a number of legal principles including right to privacy and right to publicity. These protections are made stronger by the fact that you are actually interviewing the subject.

On the other hand, if you are interviewing the subject about public facts that are not personal, you usually do not need a release. For example, if you interview a physics professor about general time theory to do a story on time travel, you normally do not need a release. However, even in this case, you need to be careful. If the physics professor has some reasonable expectation that she will be compensated for her contribution to your story, she may have some legal rights even if the information itself is public and not legally protected.

To protect yourself when you plan to interview someone for background information, let him or her know you are a screenwriter and looking for general background information. If you do not expect to pay someone for providing information to you, always be clear about that before you get the information. Most people are happy to share information of this nature for free. If you wish for more personal information or experiences or if you plan to use the person as a character in your story, always get a release.


  1. Thanks Jon. Do I need to employ a lawyer for this or is there an general release form I can use? If so, where can I find it?

  2. I’ve interviewed a lot of professional people to get information about their jobs, and in some cases about their lives — cops, doctors, lawyers, academics, victims of crime and many others — and I’m always astonished how generous people are with their time, with their knowledge and experience, and how much they like (in some cases even need) to talk (this is in the UK; maybe things are different in the US, though in my experience Americans are actually more open and generous that us Brits). I’ve always (well, *almost* always) found that as soon as I say I’m a writer, people relax and open up: it’s like using a magic word, an “open sesame” (saying you’re a journalist may have the reverse effect). Obviously if you’re writing a story that’s actually based on someone’s life, it’s a different matter. But before you get lawyers involved, before you get people to sign release forms and disclaimers, it might be a good idea just to talk to them and explain what you’re doing.

  3. Thanks Greg. The person I’m interviewing is a police officer. Very cool guy, actor too. He was in a short film I made a couple of years ago so we do have some history. The thing is I’ve already had one interview with him and now I will need to approch him with the legalese. I don’t think he’ll have a problem with the waiver that I’ve drawn up. I guess, I don’t want to offend him and scare him off.

  4. William:

    Depending on what information you are seeking from him, you may not need to get any release. If he is filling you in on police procedure, crime scene procedure, or other information of a general nature, you are usually fine with no release. While it never hurts to have a release, writers obtain general background information from many sources all the time and rarely use releases.

    As to your other question, I do not have a form release. If you are actually using him as a character in your story, or his personal experiences in your story, you need a life rights agreement. Mark Litwak sells a book of forms that has a life rights agreement.

    While I cannot give you specific legal advice with respect to your interviewing of this police officer, you should consider the nature of the information you are getting and the expectations of the interviewee. If he is clear that he is just giving you general background and that he is not getting any consideration (e.g. no payment or credit, no promise to give him a part in the picture), generally you will not need a release.

  5. Jon,

    The way he’s giving me information is by the truckload. It covers everything from procedure to “I know this guy” to things he’s seen on the job. It’s not his life story though. I said I needed background info on what this kind of cop might be like and he would paint a picture with some real life scenarios. I can’t really promise him a role in the film because there is no film at this point only a potential screenplay. Even if there was a film I don’t know if I’ll be in the position to offer anything and offering money at this point is out of the question because I have none.

    So at this point I think I’ll cross my fingers, go with a release and just hope they guy is alright with it.

  6. Can you give me the name of the book that Mark Litwak wrote which has some sample release forms? I need this form, since I am involving real life persons involvement in a serious crises book. Where can I find a copy on the internet of any release forms. Thanks in advance, I appreciate your site. Stan

  7. What if you are the subject of a documentary and you want to have the final approval of how your story is displayed? Is there a document that can protect the rights of the subject to be sure that his story is diplayed accurately?

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  12. Do you think I would need to obtain a rights release if I do not mention any names and the content is all in the public record? I wrote a little piece about my experience with the “voir dire” or jury selection part of my jury duty.

    I mostly focus on my personal thought process, but I do mention or paraphrase what I heard to the best of my recollection, and have had another potential juror review and confirm that it matches his recollection too. I mention a few people by their function, not name (e.g., the judge, the prosecutor, the defense counsel, prospective juror #18). In some cases I don’t even know the names of the people.

    The trial has concluded. I made no mention of unique identifying information about the case, but if someone wanted to dig into court records I imagine they might be able to figure out which case it was and some of the names. I have tried to contact the District Attorney’s office to see if there is any problem with me writing about it, but have received no response.

    Does this sound like a situation that would require that I try to find the people and obtain releases?

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