A friend of mine (No really- I know a writer who is interested in this angle enough where he asked me if I would ask around) is curious about how one would go about getting the rights to a murder story?
Does one have to contact the killer's lawyer?
Or the judge?
Do you have to contact the victim's families as well?
The novel would be fictional of course but based on a real life crime.
Or does a write just have to tweak reality just enough so that the fiction can't be connected to the real crime?
Has anyone here heard of this being done before?
I've covered murders, trials and everything in between as a full-time crime reporter. No one owns the rights to anything that happened in the real world. Doesn't matter if you're writing fiction or non-fiction.
Contacting the parties involved is up to you. There's no requirement. It might be a nice courtesy to do so. They'll probably be sideswiped by the dramatized account of something traumatic that's happened to them.
Frank I don't know what jurisdiction your friend is in, but I can speak to this very generally from the point of view of a fic and non-fic writer.
If you're writing fiction you don't need anyone's permission, you don't have to contact anybody. However, if you're writing fiction that is very close to actuality, you might consider libel laws. If you're referring to the project as "a fictionalization of a true crime", you definitely want to get lawyered.
Most of the details you need, in any event, will be available in the public record if there was a trial, whether in court transcripts or newspaper accounts.
It isn't difficult to do a recognizable fictionalization of a true event as long as you treat the project as professionally as a non-fiction/journalistic writer would -- this speaks to libel for what you write and slander for what you might say; as far as using folks who are currently dead, the rule of thumb is "the dead don't sue". But again, how you handle the words or actions dead folks goes to your own set of ethics.
It can get tricky, I suppose, if you're writing about, say, a man who murders his wife in a basic domestic burned-pork-chop suppertime slaying; if in your "fictionalization" you suggest that he is a pederast or have other dodgy habits, you could have trouble, especially if the fellow is in prison and another prisoner reads the book and, in reaction, severely tramples on his rights.
Best, I think, to either do a very loose fictionalization or, if the story is good enough, just write a true crime book. I'm no lawyer but I've been lawyered plenty and never successfully sued. Maybe someone else on the forum has better input.
Like him I've covered many murders, court appearances, etc., including ones the family absolutely did not want written about.
I suppose you can enter an agreement to obtain the rights to a particular person's "official" account of a murder, but frankly, I can fully and legally write about any murder anywhere anytime I feel like it.
I think a problem may arise when you use real people in your novel. If you use their names and ascribe to them motives and behaviors that are slanderous, you may be sued.