The Right Coast

March 26, 2006
Selling "Her" Story
By Gail Heriot

The San Diego Union Tribune ran a story today entitled "Rossum Unlikely to Turn Lurid Crime Tale into Riches." Kristin Rossum, a beautiful, talented, young San Diego Woman, was convicted in 2002 of the premeditated murder of her young husband (although as far as I know she continues to maintain his death was a suicide). The story was indeed a lurid one, complete with drugs, adultery and deception. The evidence of her guilt was ample. She is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Last week, a civil jury awarded her husband's family $100 million in punitive damages. Apparently, the family argued that Rossum might be able to sell the rights to her story and make a handsome profit on her crime. A "marketing expert" apparently opined that Rossum could make "at least $2.5 million" from such a sale. The Union Tribune interviewed the jury foreman shortly after the verdict was announced: "'We simply wanted to make sure that there wasn't a profit that could be made by her,' said Lyle Koonts of San Carlos, the jury foreman ...." (The jury also found the County of San Diego liable, but that should be the subject of another post.)

Criminals do sometimes profit from the publicity surrounding their crimes (and like most Americans, I agree that that's a bad thing.) California used to have a law against criminals profiting through book or movie deals, but that law was overturned by the California Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds a few years back. Still, it's worth pointing out something that seems to have been missed by the San Diego Union Tribune and that is that criminals don't "own" their stories in the first place. Sure, Rossum could write a book or screenplay about her exploits and possibly make a lot of money. Alternatively, writers or movie producers could, if they wished, pay Rossum to cooperate in their projects. One of them might even pay her to cooperate exclusively with him. But the "rights" to the story are not Rossum's to give. Anyone may write or produce a movie about the Rossum murder; it is unnecessary to seek her (or anyone else's) consent or cooperation. The murder has already been the subject of an extensive criminal trial and a civil trial. The record is there for everyone to use.

Consequently, it seems unlikely to me that anyone would pay her $2.5 million just for her cooperation. No, that doesn't necessarily mean that the jury was wrong to award punitive damages the way they did. I'm simply tired of hearing people talking about buying the "rights" to a story that is already very much in the public domain. It doesn't work that way. The most one can buy is the exclusive right of cooperation. Anyone who knows the story is free to tell it. A movie producer who pays millions for a story that is already known cannot guarantee that a dozen movies on the same subject won't appear.

(Addendum: I wrote this post on Sunday, but due to technical difficulties, it was not posted till Monday.)