["Ask a Lawyer" is part of a Q&A series currenting running in The Huffington Post. The "Q" is courtesy of Jeff Riviera, a well-respected journalist who reports on book publishing trends and personalities.]
It's important that the celebrity audibly consent, or nod at the appropriate time while the camera is rolling. If you don't obtain consent, the advantage of interviewing a celebrity is that the First Amendment generally immunizes interviewers from celebrity claims of invasion of the right of publicity and libel. If you transcribe accurately, and remember where you squirreled away the interview tape, you've reduced a lot of risk. Of course, if the celeb places limits on how, where and for what purpose the interview may be used for, the law will hold you to your promise. And, keep in mind, the celeb could claim copyright in his utterances, which you dutifully recorded.
In answer to the second part of your question, if they write the stories themselves, absolutely get it in writing. Your publisher will demand it. If you don't get written permission, their written contribution is unpublishable. Publishers don't like ambiguity. It exposes them to legal risk. While you may decide personally that the probability of a lawsuit is small, it's unlikely your publisher will see it that way. Trust me on this. You will need a well-written agreement, signed by the celebrity, granting you and your publisher (and their licensees) certain enumerated rights in their written contribution.
So who owns this interview?
The Copyright Office believes that interviews consist of two separate copyrights. They don't actually know. Knowing is left to the courts. However, it's a good bet that the interviewer owns his question, and the interviewee owns his answer. Of course, if an interviewer edits an interviews, adds additional insights and comments, it just might be a derivative or joint work. The takeaway is, when in doubt get a release; written releases (when propertly drafted) trump oral releases.
Lloyd Jassin is a publishing and intellectual property attorney and a former book publishing executive. Read more about copyright permissions and releases in The Copyright Permission & Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons).
THE INFORMATION PROVIDED ABOVE IS OF A GENERAL NATURE AND IS NOT INTENDED AS LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE A SPECIFIC LEGAL ISSUE OR QUESTION, SEEK THE SERVICES OF A COMPETENT ATTORNEY.