Copyright will protect a massive array of things including pictures, scripts, drawings, words, sculptures, magazines, books, buildings, patterns on fabric, furniture, photos, artwork, etc. There are countless copyright infringement cases in the entertainment world often in relation to allegedly stolen ideas (e.g. Dean v. Cameron for Avatar) or artwork (e.g. Horizon Comics Productions, Inc. v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC). There are different ways to go about this legally to avoid a potential lawsuit. If you are using photos in your show, you will need a “name and likeness” release form that must be signed off on by the copyright owner. Remember, the copyright owner is the person taking the photograph, not the person in the photograph. However, if you want to use a photo of a celebrity, you have to make sure you get clearance on it so that the celebrity does not sue you for unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness. If you need to use yearbook photos in the show as a prop, the company who took the yearbook photo has ownership. What do you do? You have to track down the company and sign off on it to clear the photos.
If you want to use artwork in your show, a general rule to remember is that if it was created prior to 1923 in the US, the artwork will most likely be public domain. However, if you want an artist to paint something specifically for your show, you have them sign a work-for-hire form which will make you the copyright owner of the artist’s work. If the crew has their own existing art that you would like to use in the show, they must sign a release form to use their artwork on set. These are all things that can be cleared often by having copyright owners sign a form and yet they can keep a production from being sued for millions of dollars.