Monday, September 20, 2010

Ask a Lawyer: Interviews and the Law

Q: I'm writing a book based on interviews I've done with political leaders, writers, actors, and other prominent people. Do I need written permission? What can I do to avoid being sued for libel?

A: What can possibly go wrong if you don't obtain a signed release? Plenty. Leading the parade of horribles is defamation. Will the interviewee claim the edited interview, either by omission, implication or innuendo, placed them in an unfavorable light?
In 2016, Katie Couric was sued by a gun advocacy group for deceptive editing of an interview in a documentary titled Under the Gun. While Couric beat the $13 million dollar defamation lawsuit on appeal, a simple release could have saved time, money and the stress. 
While there are defenses such as innocent construction (to defamation), truth (to defamation), fair use (to copyright infringement), and implied consent (to use in other media), because of the legal what-ifs and hazy boundaries of the law, the best practice is obtain a signed release.  
Click here for sample interview release forms.
Spoken Releases
There are many reasons authors do not obtain written releases, including deadline pressure on interviews conducted by phone or Zoom. While less reliable than a signed release, recorded consent is a viable alternative, provided the scope of rights is clearly defined.
At the beginning of an audio or video interview ask if you have permission to record the interview, and they understand that you may edit the interview and use it for future research or in different media.

It's important that the interviewee respond. If you edit or transcribe the interview accurately, and store the recording in a safe and accessible place, you've gone a long way to reducing the risk of a successful defamation or copyright infringement lawsuit. 
Of course, the law will hold you to your promise if the interviewee limits how or where the interview may be used. 
The Parade of Interview Horribles
Interview Releases
A  Parade of Horribles
Copyright. One of the hotly contested issues in copyright law is who owns an interview. Some copyright scholars posit that an interview is jointly owned by the interviewer and interviewee. However, to 
qualify as a joint work, there must be evidence that the parties intended to be joint owners. If determined to be a joint work, the co-authors are afforded equal rights in the work, subject to to a duty to account to each other.   

The Copyright Office believes that an interview consists of two separate copyrights, i.e., the interviewer and interviewee own the words they spoke. A third theory is the interviewer owns the copyright in the selection and arrangement of the questions and answers. Because it's often unclear if the interviewer and interviewee shared an intent to be co-authors, the best practice is to get a signed release.    
If the ownership issue can't be resolved conclusively, you may be able to roll out the fair use defense. But, it's a partial solution. For example, it won't allow you to publish an entire interview.

Fair use allows writers, podcasters, and others to copy small portions of in-copyright works for socially productive purposes without permission. A defense to copyright infringement, it enables courts to avoid rigid application of copyright law where the strict application would "stifle the very creativity which the law is designed to foster."

Unfortunately, fair use is not amendable to mechanical rules. The fair use test takes into consideration or weighs these four factors: (a) the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is primarily commercial in nature; (b) the nature of the copyrighted work; (c) the amount and importance of what's used in relation to the original work; and (d) if the use supersedes a market for the original?

Libel is a false statement about a living person (business or group) that harms their reputation. Truth is a complete defense to libel. Where the plaintiff is a celebrity or public figure, the plaintiff must show that the false statement was made with reckless disregard for the truth (aka actual malice). While a celebrity or other public figure may have a tough time winning a libel suit due to the constitutional actual malice standard, a well-drafted release will give you the right to edit and use the interview in any media without consent.
The gold standard is a well-drafted written release. Document signing apps like DocusSign and Adobe Sign are simple e-signature solutions. Today we're habituated to clicking OK boxes without much thought. So, getting a release signed need not be a burdensome task.

Media Liability Insurance

If you don't have a signed release, given the murkiness of the law, media liability insurance is something to look into. It's a specialized form of insurance that covers claims of copyright and trademark infringement, invasion of privacy, defamation, and other contextual errors and omissions. Some policies even cover claims of misappropriation of ideas and negligent publication. Most of these policies also cover the costs of defending a lawsuit, including attorney's fees and court costs.

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Image:  Parade of Horribles and Antiques, Portland, Maine
Photographer:  Unknown
Year:  1920
Credit: Main Historical Society

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