The Lives of Others: Unauthorized Depictions of Public Figures in U.S. Film and TV Drama

Jonathan Stubbs


This article examines the unauthorized depiction of public figures in contemporary U.S. film and TV from a legal perspective, particularly the conflict between free speech and reputational damage. These issues are historicized by reviewing the earliest cases brought against film producers in the 1910s and 1920s, and by analyzing the main practices employed in the film industry to minimize the legal risks of dramatizing real people. The second section considers changes in the legal standing of films and their representation of real people over time, including the extension of First Amendment protection, the revision of defamation standards, and the emergence of publicity rights. Finally, the article examines the recent case brought by Olivia de Havilland over her depiction in the miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan. Testing the validity of publicity rights laws, the case depended on whether her depiction was “transformative” rather than realistic and thus protected as free speech.


law, historical drama, defamation, publicity rights, free speech

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