The title basic summarizes my question. Is a real life story subject to copyright by those who lived it? Or could someones create a book or movie about the history without contacting those who actually lived it?

To make the question more concrete, consider the recent soccer team rescue in a thai cave and some intentions to create a movie about it. Could potential movie producers create a movie about a football team trapped inside a cave for 18 days without contacting anyone (or their legal representatives)?

3 Answers 3


No. Copyright protects expressions of ideas, not ideas themselves and not historical facts either. Conceivably, the persons written about might have a commercial right to use of their person or image, but the doctrine there is not copyright and the analysis is different.

  • I was going to note that there are other challenges that can arise depending on the jurisdiction, such as depicting an actual person involved in the rescue in a defamatory manner. Jul 17, 2018 at 21:44

Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. That is, if you write a story, whether true or fictional, you own a copyright in the exact words that you used to tell that story. No one else can reprint your words without your permission.*

You do not own a copyright to facts or ideas.

So if, say, you were one of those trapped in that cave and you wrote a book about your experience, copyright law means that no one else can copy the EXACT WORDS you used in your book, or words so close that they are obviously copied. But others can freely rewrite your experience in their own words. Like if you wrote, "I was trapped in a cave for 30 days with no food or water", and someone else wrote, "So-and-so found himself unable to escape from a deep cave. He was there for 30 days without sustenance or liquids", that would be perfectly legal.

There was a court case many years ago -- I suppose I could dig up a reference if necessary -- where a newspaper was taking stories from another newspaper, rewriting them in their own words, and printing them. A court ruled that this was completely legal.

For example, a news agency doesn't own the fact that Mr Jones won the election for governor just because they published it first. They can't stop others from reporting that Jones is now governor, or sue any member of the state legislature who refers to Jones as the governor. They own the words they used to report this event, not the event itself.

  • There are some exceptions, like others can reprint short quotes for review or commentary, like someone else could quote you to explain why he agrees or disagrees with what you said.


The life story of an actual person is a matter of historical facts (albeit recent facts in some cases). Copyright never protects facts. Anyone could do a biopic of Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or Caitlyn Jenner, or anyone else tomorrow, without needing the permission of the subject.

In some US states and some other jurisdictions there are rights of personality which might limit the use of actual images of the subject, but any restriction on an account of actual events would not be compatible with the US First Amendment. That would not apply outside the US, but facts are no protected by copyright anywhere.

If such an account included knowingly false statements of fact there could be a defamation claim, but a plaintiff would need to prove defamatory statements of fact, and damage to reputation.

Note that "unauthorized biographies" are published all the time. Occasionally there are defamation suits, but never that I kn ow of a copyright suit unless it is for copying an actual existing work, such as an autobiography.

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