Grand Central Publishing recently paid a $1.25 million advance for the story of Dewey the Library Cat. Apparently the book
will tell the story of how the kitten was found in the late-night book drop of the public library in Spencer, Iowa, a town in the northwest part of the state, and adopted by Ms. Myron and the other librarians. Slowly, over the course of his 19-year life, Dewey became a town mascot who lifted the spirits of residents hit hard by the 1980s farming crisis.
Dewey’s story will “need to sell at least 250,000 copies in hardcover to cover the cost of the advance.” Which leads me to wonder–what exactly are they paying for here? The co-authors will be “Vicki Myron, the head librarian in Spencer, Iowa; and Bret Witter, a former editorial director at Health Communications, the publisher of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books.” Certainly Ms. Myron has the inside scoop on taking care of Dewey, and Witter’s helped churn out buckets of spirit-lifting pablum. But is the advance really about something more, like the “life story” rights?
I’ve always found life story rights a bit puzzling. If a docudrama is basically a retelling of something that has happened, anyone can “use” those facts. But a brief glance at a bit of a sample “life story” agreement reveals some reasons why someone may want to buy “life rights.” Here is some of the language:
(a) Upon exercise of the option, Purchaser shall own the exclusive right throughout the world, in perpetuity, to produce, distribute, exhibit, license and otherwise exploit, in any and all media (now known or hereafter devised), motion pictures, television productions and other audiovisual works of all kinds (the “Works”), including without limitation sequels and remakes, based on or portraying your life story or depicting you, as well as exclusive ancillary rights . . . to use your name, likeness and other identifying characteristics in connection with the Works.
(b) You agree that in producing the Works, Purchaser shall have the right to add to, delete from, modify and fictionalize your life story and you waive all claims arising therefrom, except in the event of intentional defamation of you.
So the real advantage for the purchaser of the “life story” rights is fending off potential defamation or right of publicity lawsuits. One query–does purchase of the life rights of some notable figure also give the purchaser the same right to sue others that the seller agreed not to enforce against the purchaser? Then I could see these agreements being quite potent…for an aggressive purchaser may threaten virtually any rival storyteller in the marketplace of ideas with some kind of right of publicity or defamation suit.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Huxleyesque. No, that’s not Dewey…no way I’m risking a copyright suit with that feline corporate juggernaut.