Cinema Law: What are the Rights of a Documentary Subject?

Q: What rights does the subject of a documentary film have if the film falls apart?

As with all things in the law, the answer is: It depends. A documentary subject’s rights are dictated by two interrelated factors: the rights granted by contract with the filmmakers, and the rights granted by law.

Rights Granted by Contract

I feel like I say this so often I should trademark it: You need to put your agreement into writing prior to filming. Written contracts are crucial to any business relationship and are designed to ensure that participants know what they’re supposed to do and are held accountable if they don’t do it. When prospective clients approach me with legal problems, it’s a good bet they’re dealing with an issue that could’ve been avoided if they had put everything on paper first.

A good contract will explain what a documentary subject’s rights and duties, including what he or she can do if the film inexplicably halts production or falls apart in some other fashion. Will he or she have producing and creative input, or simply act as a conduit for storytelling? If it’s the former, will the subject have an ownership stake in the film? Can he or she take control of the production by buying up all the footage and/or hiring a new producing team to finish the film? If it’s the latter, can the subject withdraw the use of his or her likeness and story? What kind of oversight will the subject have to control how he or she is portrayed on camera?…

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