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This article tells us how 16 different companies are bidding over the screen rights to a N.Y. Times kidnapping revenge article.

What I don't understand is what kind of rights they are trying to get. Surely anybody can write their own story about a lady who is running a private investigation in order to get her daughter's kidnappers in jail. Are they paying for the right to put in the caption "based on a true story by N.Y. Times"? Or is it to use the actual person's name (and in that case, why is N.Y. Times receiving the money)? I would assume they want to keep parts of the plot, but again, why is N.Y. Times receiving the money for something they didn't invent?

Or do they plan to actually use the article's text verbatim in the movie? In my experience, movies based on a true story nevertheless deviate quite significantly from the hard facts, so I find that hard to believe.

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The right in question would be the right to create a derivative work based on the story. Since this is a news story, it is presumably based on fact. Anyone may base a work (non-fiction book, novel, film, play etc) on a set of factual events, and there is no need to pay anyone for permission to do so. But the text of a particular news story is protected by copyright, and may not be used without permission (except to the limited extent permitted by fair use or fair dealing). This might include quoting the news story, or using its organization of the facts.

It is more common to see movie studios bidding for the screen rights to a work of fiction. There the detailed events are the original creation of the author(s) and if used without permission, the result is likely to be held a derivative work and thus a copyright infringement, depending on the exact facts of the case.

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