In Hollywood, there’s a market for peace of mind. The product is called “life rights,” which unlike copyrights, trademarks, and patents, is not recognized by any specific statute. Life rights are really just a promise not to sue over a movie or TV show. Plus, people who sell life rights might offer some cooperation on the publicity front. But it’s really not legally necessary to buy these rights. Again, it’s for peace of mind. It can be a shakedown for agents who represent the famous, the accidentally and fleetingly famous (think rescued Chilean miners), and the notorious (e.g. Anna Sorokin).
Not all studios buy life rights before proceeding with a biopic. And some famous individuals have no interest—no matter the financial offer—in being fictionalized. Alas, occasionally, amid the sea of movies and TV shows “based on true events” (Hulu’s The Dropout and Pam & Tommy, AppleTV+’s WeCrashed, Showtime’s SuperPumped, to name a few recent standouts), someone threatens to sue.
That’s what NBA legend Jerry West has done in response to Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. The unvarnished HBO series, about the “Showtime” era when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and helped reignite interest in the NBA, has received good reviews and viewership is growing week-to-week. But there’s one constituency that loathes it—those who were actually there with the team. Indeed, Winning Time co-creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht fictionalize characters like owner Jerry Buss to the point of caricature. For a critical but non-legal take on the series, read this review by Kareem Abdul Jabbar himself.