Does A Person Have "Rights" To An Ancestor's Journal?

Hypothetical question/situation.

If my great-great-great grandfather participated in a Civil War battle and wrote a journal of his experiences which was passed down through the family, but sold outright by my father to a collector, and somehow wound up being made into a “major” motion picture (which would turn my average ancestor into Geroge Clooney, cost 150 million dollars, but only make $17.89 at the box office), would I have any rights to compensation?

If my family made a stink, would the production company likely offer everybody a couple hundred bucks to shut them up?

OK, what if the journal was still owned by my family, and I follishly allowed a screenwriter to read it. Could he proceed to write and sell a screenplay exactly like the journal whether I liked the notion or not?

Again, don’t fear, this is a “what if” question only, you won’t be seing my kinfolk on the big screen anytime soon, or ever.

Thanks in advance,

Sir Rhosis

If it was an actual journal made during the Civil War, then it has long passed out of copyright. Anybody and anyone who can get their hands on a copy of the journal can do anything they want in terms of publishing, making a movie, etc.

The only realistic way of avoiding that is to limit the copies. Easiest is to not make any and don’t let anyone see it. (Actually, destroying it is still easier but…)

Note that if there really is only the one copy, you (that is the person who has it in their legal possesion) can require people trying to access it to sign various and sundry waivers, contracts, etc. So if they do something they weren’t supposed to, you can sic lawyers on them.

This last part can be tricky. Some scriptwriter starts schlepping a screenplay around based on the journal. He says that his is a copy of a copy made 75 years ago and he never signed your contract. How are you going to prove otherwise?

As to compensating the family, there is no way a judge would even waste time hearing the case. If the family makes a stink, the studio might throw a few $$ your way, but that’s just for PR reasons, not legal reasons.

There’s also a big legal mess involving which descendants are entitled to rights and all. Once you get into the 20s of descendants, it’s likely a subset will decide to sellout just because.

Some people might consider trademarking the ancestors’ name and such. Whoever gets the application in first wins (barring pre-existing uses, etc.) But the other folks just switch to a different name, and so on and so on.