Copyrighting Facts in Movies – “We Are Marshall”

Movie producers often attempt to purchase the rights of real stories they want to turn into film. However, media sources reporting events have no copyright interest in the facts they are reporting.

A recent American case helps illustrate this point.

The 2006 Warner Bros. film We Are Marshall starring Matthew McConaughey depicted the true story of a plane that crashed on Nov. 14, 1970, killing all 75 people on board. The victims included 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team.

Although Warner Bros. had approached the makers of an Emmy-winning documentary film, Ashes to Glory: The Tragedy and Triumph of Marshall Football, no formal agreement was made to license the work.

The film producers, Deborah Novak and John Witek, filed a $40 million copyright suit, with claims for breach of contract and fraud. U.S. District Court Judge Gary Allen Feess provided a summary judgment on the case Monday, citing 15 substantial differences between the documentary and the Hollywood film.

The opinion stated,

Though the two works tell the story of the November 14, 1970 air plane crash, that event, and the events that preceded and followed, are all matters of public record which cannot be copyrighted. Copyright protects only an author’s original expression and not historical facts or events…

Here, Plaintiffs have created and produced a fact-based narrative that recounts, in an historically accurate way, what happened before and after the 1970 air plane crash.

Defendants, on the other hand, have produced a dramatic recreation of the events that, though based on the historical record including the documentary, does not appropriate Plaintiffs’ expressive elements and makes no pretense of being historically accurate.

Thus, even though the two works have the same story as their subject, they are not “substantially similar” as that phase is used in copyright jurisprudence.


  1. Since they probably could have settled for a tidy sum had they managed to survive summary judgment, I suppose you can’t really blame them for trying.