Lifestyles of the rich and the famous – Life Rights Agreements

by Morrison Kent - Andrew Stewart & Rochelle Cooney

With the rise of “celebrity”, where anyone with a smartphone and internet access can command a legion of followers, producers may wish to capitalise on these ready-made audiences for celebrity content. In our current “personal-brand” focused world, now may be the time to secure the contractual rights to portray someone in a film, TV programme or other form of media content. This article gives a general overview of the legal aspects and raises some important matters to be considered.

Rights and obligations

When a producer wishes to develop and produce either a factual or a “based on a true story” film or TV programme about a person, they will need to ensure that the necessary rights are obtained. This is often covered in a “life-story” or “life rights” agreement. Ideally the rights will be granted to the producer exclusively (to avoid a competing product in the marketplace) and will be as broad as possible.

Important promises

The key to any successful life-story agreement is a promise from the subject that they will not bring any claims of libel, defamation or invasion of privacy against the production company. This will need to be carefully drafted into the agreement itself.

Access and permission

A producer may want to negotiate access to certain materials needed for the project, such as diaries, photos or home videos, and also have the subject make themselves available to the producer. A producer will likely need to be able to use the subject’s name, image, voice and likeness for promotion, advertising and publicity of the film or programme.

Creative input

A producer will want to be given the freedom to be able to fictionalise or adapt the life story of the subject. It is advisable to treat script or treatment approval by the subject with caution. This is because time and money may be expended by the producer to develop a script, only to have the subject refuse it.  If the subject has concerns about the creative treatment of his or her life story, it may be worth exploring other ways to address this.


Any payment can either be a fixed price or be determined by a formula; and could be payable now or later. Sometimes people agree to share in the producer’s net profit generated by the film either in addition, or instead.

As this article highlights, there are a number of things to be considered when contracting over life rights. Both producers and potential subjects of these features should take early legal advice to ensure that their rights and interests are protected.  

For further information or to arrange an initial consultation with one of our Wellington-based media law experts, contact Andrew Stewart, email, phone (04) 495 8921, or Rochelle Cooney, email, phone (04) 495 8910

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