Legal Rights

When filmmakers work with crime victims, the personal rights that are possessed by each and every citizen become important issues. Too many crime victims are re-victimized by overzealous folk who are so anxious "to get the story" that they are insensitive to victim pain and to the rights of the victims. The following is a brief summary of legal issues in filmmaking that take on particular importance when it comes to crime victims.

The Right of Privacy

Invasion of privacy is always a gray area because so much of it has to do with the expectations of the individuals. Remember that victims do not choose to thrust themselves into the limelight, so their loss of privacy is very narrow. Even the identification of a victim of certain kinds of crime (child abuse, rape and such) might well be an invasion of privacy, especially if it is accompanied by other identifiers such as an address or an occupation. In the process of your investigation, you might well discover certain facts that are true but when used in a film invade the privacy of the victim because the facts have nothing to do with the crime story. Also, your right to report on matters particular to the victim without the victim's permission is limited by time. Victims can quickly regain a total right of privacy through the simple act of keeping their mouths shut and going about their business. Ethically and legally, filmmakers should respect the privacy that an individual recaptures after a temporary trip into the limelight.

Libel and Slander

Be careful about victim blaming. Sometimes, through sloppiness, victims can be made to look complicit in the crime. Sometimes insensitive prosecutors and defense attorneys talk a lot about the victims if they are known in the community and have a certain amount of notoriety. Be careful that you do not make these victims look as though they were somehow complicit in an event that they were thrust into against their will.

False Light

This area can be a real minefield for a filmmaker. You must not say something about the victim that is not true, even if it is harmless. The courts have said clearly that every person has the right not to have their life misrepresented. Sometimes, in the rush to publish or broadcast a story, some of the details of a victim's life that are not directly related to the crime are not checked out so carefully. You violate a person's rights when you say something false about a person, even if the falsehood is harmless. Be sure all your details are correct.

- Michael Donaldson, Donaldson & Hart, Los Angeles CA
author Clearance & Copyright: Everything the Independent Filmmaker Needs to Know


Other Resources
Chapter excerpts from Michael Donaldson's Book Clearance & Copyright: Everything the Independent Filmmaker Needs to Know. Purchase this book at
Chapter 3: Public Domain
  Chapter 4: Personal Rights