Who Owns the Rights To Your Life Story?

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An unknown, down on his luck fighter gets a shot at the big time against the reigning, legendary champ. Although the endearing underdog eventually loses by technical knockout, he dances toe-to-toe with the champ for 15 rounds, even knocking down one of the greatest pugilists ever along the way.

Cue the music—this sounds like a movie! That's what Sylvester Stallone thought on March 24, 1975, as he watched Chuck Wepner, "The Bayonne Bleeder," (also, apparently, “The Bayonne Brawler”) duke it out with the “Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali, in Richfield, Ohio. Wepner had been handpicked by promoter Don King for the title shot, which was supposed to be against George Foreman…until Ali beat Foreman for the heavyweight title. In the words of Stallone: "So when the fight was over, all I thought was 'get me a pencil.'"

Three days of writing and Stallone held the screenplay and character that would propel him to stardom. The yet-undiscovered actor sold the rights to produce "Rocky" with the condition that he be cast in the title role, and his efforts were rewarded with the 1976 Academy Award for best picture. Moviegoers loved "The Italian Stallion" punching sides of beef and running the steps of Philadelphia's Art Museum in preparation for the battle royal against beloved champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Four more "Rocky" installments followed, as well as more than $1 billion in worldwide box office sales.

According to Chuck Wepner's website, Stallone called him two weeks after the Ali fight to tell him there would be a movie about it, and he was "happy" when the first "Rocky" came out. Years later, when he met Hollywood's Rocky Balboa, Stallone yelled, "Hay, Chuck thanks!…I guess for da' inspiration."

What was Chuck Wepner's cut for providing "da' inspiration?" So far, nothing, and he wanted his fair share, which he estimated at $15 million, according to a lawsuit [PDF] filed against Stallone in November, 2003. The Bleeder, so named for his propensity to get cut during even victorious battles, contended that even though Stallone promised payments over the years, Wepner received nothing from the success of "Rocky" and its progeny. (Interestingly, Wepner and Stallone appeared together in a still photo from the set of “Cop Land,” and reports from as late as 2002 stated that Stallone and Wepner were cordial and that Wepner viewed the idea of suing Stallone over "Rocky" as "sour grapes." Maybe Wepner got different advice from his corner team.)

In his complaint, Wepner alleged that Stallone "capitalized…on the fact that using Chuck Wepner's name in conjunction with the Rocky franchise add[ing] an element of reality to the product [Stallone] is selling." Apparently, it wasn’t so much the inspiration as the use of Wepner’s name in marketing the film for which he wanted compensation. "It's one thing to base a movie on someone, which you can do," Wepner's attorney, Anthony G. Mango, said. "It's another to continually harp on the name for selling and promoting without any permission or compensation, which you can't do."

Stallone moved to dismiss the suit, but United States District Court Judge Katharine S. Hayden dealt Stallone a blow by denying his request [PDF], and allowing the suit to continue on the count that Stallone inappropriately used Wepner's name in the promotion of "Rocky," without Wepner’s permission. Judge Hayden wrote: "Chuck Wepner contends, and Stallone does not contest, that the main character, Rocky Balboa, was based on Chuck Wepner and the plot of the first movie was inspired on the 1975 fight." Judge Hayden noted, however, that Chuck Wepner identified no specific agreements regarding the use of his name to promote "Rocky," and that the facts "fail to support the allegation that Chuck Wepner expected payment for the use of his name in marketing."

Stallone did manage to score points in the same fight, though, as Judge Hayden dismissed claims that Stallone was unjustly enriched by trading on Chuck Wepner's life story and that Wepner suffered by relying on Stallone's promises of eventual payment.

So Wepner survived round one. But at the final bell...well, whatever the boxing analogy for an out-of-court settlement would be. The terms are undisclosed, but one can only assume that Stallone emerged pretty much unbloodied.

In the end, perhaps The Bayonne Bleeder can serve as an inspiration to more than just boxers. Maybe he should inspire us all to go the distance; after all—he made it to the final round with Ali, and went the distance with Rocky, too.

But who owns the rights to your life story? You do, for the most part. But rights of publicity are tricky: first of all, they tend to apply more to celebrities than to Joe Q. Public—that’s because they rely in part on resources one has spent creating a recognizable name (like a brand) for oneself; successful right-of-publicity plaintiffs in the past have been Vanna White and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And even then, those plaintiffs won in cases where their likenesses were being used to sell things—not where a story was being told. And what about that? That is to say: what about the First Amendment, especially as it applies to the lives of public figures? Strangely, public figures sometimes have less control over how their images and stories are used than average citizens, since, as public figures, they’ve willingly placed themselves in the spotlight. For example, one wonders whether Ike Turner consented to his depiction by Lawrence Fishburne in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” or how thrilled the Winklevoss Twins were about their depiction in “The Social Network.” So it’s not perhaps as simple as “you own it;” it may depend on who you are, too, and what the use in question happens to be.

Since the 1970s, screenwriters have become more sensitive to the rights of their subjects—even a cursory internet search reveals numerous samples of life story sale agreements and warnings about gaining proper rights to market someone else's life experiences. Some solid advice: secure rights to someone’s story before you start working on your book, play or movie. You don’t want to end up in the ring with Chuck Wepner—remember, he wasn’t called the Bayonne Brawler for nothing.

This article was updated in November 2011.