When we consider movies based on a person’s real-life experiences, we may not think about how the creative licenses a writer or director took to tell the audience a story. After all, a writer or director may rely on embellished impressions of true stories as well as fictional characters based on real people. While this may lead to a great story (and a fantastic movie), the real-life people depicted in them may feel like their identities were improperly used; either because they disagree with how the story was told their likeness and experiences were portrayed differently.
This is why phrases like “based on a true story,” or “based on true events,” or “taken from real-life events” are particularly important.
Essentially, the First Amendment offers a great deal of protection for directors, screenwriters and actors alike if a particular work has significant transformative elements that take it out of the realm of a real-life story and into an original work.
A seminal case on the issue of transformative elements is Comedy III v. Saderup, where the owners of the names, images and likenesses of The Three Stooges sued a cartoon artist who drew caricatures of the famous trio and put them on t-shirts that he sold for a profit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the t-shirts were protected under the First Amendment because the Stooges’ likeness was so transformed that it became the artist’s original work.
So when real-life stories are characters are portrayed, even if done in a negative light, they are likely protected because the transformative elements are such that they create an original expression of an artist’s work.