Savvy Florida moviegoers know that the line between fact and fiction always gets blurred in the screenplay of biographical films. But when the biographical film is about a writer who himself blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, things can get very blurry indeed.

Recently, the star James Franco was sued over his yet-to-be-released biographical film, or “biopic,” about the late author Charles Bukowski. A screenwriter claims that he and Franco entered an agreement in 2009 to begin work on a film based upon Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel “Ham on Rye.” The screenwriter claims that Franco’s rights ended the following year, but that the actor continued to develop a Bukowski biopic. That film, titled “Bukowski,” has now reportedly been finished and is awaiting a distributor.

In his lawsuit, the screenwriter claims that the finished film has substantial similarities to “Ham on Rye,” a work that is still protected by copyright. The screenwriter claims to have his own deal that gives him the exclusive right to develop a film based upon “Ham and Rye,” and claims that Franco’s film will hurt his property rights related to the novel.

It may seem odd to think that copyright could apply to an autobiographical work. Autobiographies and biographies are based on facts, and one cannot hold a copyright on facts. However, one can hold a copyright on the unique creative expression of those facts. Thus, it’s possible for one biographical work to infringe the property rights of another biographical work about the same person. It’s also possible for one person to have the rights to an autobiographical work without having the right to make television and film productions that are explicitly based upon the author’s life story.

Entertainment law is full of head-scratching disputes about the nature of creativity and originality. Florida entertainment law attorneys can tackle these difficult questions when they come up so that their clients can carry on with their work in entertainment and the arts.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, “James Franco Sued for Violating Film Rights to Charles Bukowski Novel,” Eriq Gardner, April 25, 2014