View Full Version : Life story of a dead public figure (elected official). Do I need family's permission?

Fiveacre Films
08-21-2014, 12:02 PM
George W Bush is a public figure and therefore you don't need his permission nor the permission of any other public figure to depict them.

NOTE: I originally posted this within another thread, but thought it might be overlooked there. So I post here (other post deleted).

So exactly what qualifies one as a public figure? Any famous movie star would seem to me to be a public figure. But don't you have to get permission to exploit the name or likeness of say Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart? Or is the term public figure, in the context used here, synonymous only with public servant, as in elected official? And how far down does that extend? For instance, would a (famous) local sheriff qualify?

I ask this not randomly, but with specific purpose in mind: I have for many years now contemplated writing a screenplay based on the true life and times of Sheriff Buford Pusser, of "Walking Tall" fame. There have been several movies and even a short-lived TV series based on his life before, but from what I gather after extensive reading and talking to people with first-hand knowledge of the events, all those productions were so highly fictionalized that they bear very little resemblance to the real story. My version would not necessarily paint him in a negative light, but it would not be nearly as "whitewashed" and would show that in many ways he was just as corrupt as the state-line bootleggers he so opposed.

I've always felt a very personal connection with this story, as all those events happened within an hours drive of my hometown, and I actually met the real Buford Pusser once when I was a child. I also have friends whose family members were directly involved in some of the real events, including members of the Dawson family who were key figures in the infamous State-Line Mob.

So, would I have to get permission from Pusser's family (and others) to write my own story (or produce my own film), being that he was a publicly elected figure? I obviously could not call mine Walking Tall, nor would I want to. But I know that in the first film (actually a trilogy of films) they changed the names of several key characters in the story, and even the names of a few places were changed or altered. In a 2004 screen version, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, all character names, including Pusser's, were changed, and even the location was moved from the rural South to the Pacific Northwest, although they made no bones about it being a retelling of the Pusser story, and even premiered it in Pusser's hometown to lots of fanfare. I'd like to know if the changes were for legal reasons or for marketing.

I understand Pusser's family, especially his daughter, has become very "Hollywood" savvy over the years and now expects to profit somehow from anything involving the Pusser story.

Nick Soares
08-21-2014, 06:12 PM
really interesting, I am not sure of this either. Subscribed.

Anonymous Filmmaker
08-21-2014, 06:31 PM
really interesting, I am not sure of this either. Subscribed.
Neither am I. However, elected officials ARE allowed to be filmed and that material is public domain, so I would assume the film would be fine.

Nick Soares
08-21-2014, 06:37 PM
Maybe Patrick mean "public employees"

08-21-2014, 06:40 PM
Here's a good article on the subject from an entertainment lawyer. Based on this, you'd probably be fine if he's dead. But you'd probably want to line up legal representation before you even start.


Fiveacre Films
08-21-2014, 08:21 PM
Thank you, Mara. Based on the information in the link you provided, it looks like I would probably be fine with an "unauthorized" biopic since the subject was an elected public official, now deceased. It also explains why some of the secondary characters in the earlier films may have been fictionalized, as many would have still been alive in 1972 when the first film was made. But now, 40 years after Pusser's death (to the very day in fact, quite by coincidence) I believe that most all the people involved are probably long deceased. Pusser's daughter is still alive and very much in control of his estate, but I'm sure I could figure out a way to write around her part or only allude to her in the story, as she was only a small child at the time and not a party to any of the significant events.

At least I'd be fine on the defamation or invasion of privacy parts because those rights do not extend beyond the grave. Rights of publicity (the right to exploit one's name or image) might be a hurdle, as that can descend to one’s heirs in some states, Tennessee being one (thanks in large part to the deep pockets of the Elvis Presley estate). But that seems to me to apply mainly to using one's actual photographic image or likeness. It appears unauthorized biographies and biopics are made of public figures all the time without the estate's consent.