January 12, 2023
As an author, you have the right to write about whatever topic you choose. Or do you? When it comes to writing a fictionalized or even purely non-fiction story about another person, writers should tread lightly to make sure that their books don’t cross any legal boundaries. But crafting a story based on a real person or another person’s life story without permission can be possible under certain circumstances. Let’s take a look at the legalities surrounding writing a book about someone without permission and what authors need to know to protect themselves as well as treat the subject of their work respectfully.
Many authors use a real person, situation, or a combination of both as their inspiration for a book. In fact, as the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun and that’s why so many stories have threads of commonality, especially throughout each specific genre. But when authors choose to write about a specific person without permission or a real set of events (which necessarily will involve the unique actions of those individuals who were involved) without their express consent, authors run the risk of crossing legal lines.
More than just creating hard feelings, without permission to write a book, authors can cross several legal lines: invasion of privacy, libelous behavior, or even defamation of character laws. Each of these legal designations is serious, but can an author be prosecuted for crossing that line in a fictional or fictionalized book? Yes and no.
In fact, many people, including celebrities, famous individuals as well as regular people have been made a subject in books that presented them in a negative if not authentic way. And while the risk of prosecution is generally fairly low for writing about someone without permission, it is not zero. But authors without permission could affect their own reputation as a writer. Writers who choose to write about others without permission to do so may lose credibility within the writing world and gain a reputation among readers and other writers as someone without integrity.
Writing a story that includes specific details about a real person can be considered an invasion of their privacy. Although every state has its own laws and regulations concerning the invasion of privacy, generally these regulate privacy concerns in four ways. Each of these can be legally prosecuted when an author violates one without permission.
Invasion of privacy also extends to revealing the truth about a person if doing so will be overly offensive, cause them distress or embarrassment, will make their life unbearable as a result, or if the knowledge is not something the public has a right to know. Authors who include any of these types of personal information without permission, even if it is true, can be legally prosecuted by the offended public or private individual.
Libel laws protect people from being discredited within their business or profession, shunned or avoided by society, or being subject to hatred, ridicule, or contempt by society. Even if a writer quotes another person or organization with a libelous statement, the writer is still legally responsible for the words that they have written. Authors may want to present the truth of a situation, which may include presenting information that is libelous, but seeking to write the truth about someone or their situation can be tricky if the subject matter is libelous and done without permission.
The final legal pitfall that writers face when writing a book without permission by the subject is the potential to defame their character. Damaging someone’s reputation by presenting an untrue story as factual is called defamation of character. Opinions about a person do not defame, but they can fall under the libel category. Authors have to be careful to sidestep defamation claims by not including false or misleading information without permission that can affect a subject’s reputation.
Since famous authors use real people in their fiction and non-fiction books all the time, it is safe to say that is acceptable for any writer to do so as well. Referencing a real person in the forward, dedication, and acknowledgment areas of your book is generally considered an honor, so including them in those locations is usually appreciated, even if without permission.
And authors who present real people in a positive and neutral way usually do not have any legal concerns either. But writing about a real person in a way that defames, libels, or invades their privacy without permission to do so is risky for any writer and may result in a lawsuit as well as present credibility problems for you as an author. If you do include publicly sourced information about a person in your fiction or non-fiction book, be sure to have sources to prove that the information you included was factual.
Every day we are bombarded with news and social media coverage about celebrities and other public people, but that does not mean you can write without permission. So it’s easy to forget that their lives, stories, and reputations are also subject to the same privacy laws as anyone else. But authors who want to include a celebrity in their stories in any way will need to reach out to the celebrity or their management team to obtain permission to write book stories or anecdotes that include them. Failure to do so, even if they are just a brief mention in the story, can result in legal problems for an author.
So what if your book would benefit from including a real person or a celebrity in some way? Use these tips to help you protect your work from legal concerns while integrating real people into your book.
The best and most fail-safe strategy is to simply ask for book permission from your subject. Written permission, even if it’s in the form of an informal agreement, is a good way to protect yourself and your book from legal troubles in the future.
Publicly obtained research can oftentimes provide plenty of information for you to use in your book. Public court documents and news reports are a great resource when seeking previously released information.
Complete your own research in addition to the documentation you find publicly. Keep a file of the interviews and information you discover as a resource for this book as well as for potential future projects.
If you love the story or details about someone, pick some of the unique qualities or characteristics that they have and give them to a created character instead of using the person in your story. If a person is easily linked to a characteristic or trait, be careful to change enough about your new character that the real person or celebrity is not identifiable.
Remember that your job as a writer is to show the reader rather than always telling them what to think or feel. Use your powers of description to show readers a truth, a detail, or a characteristic about a person, celebrity, or even business that you have included in your story rather than definitively presenting their actions or traits as fact. Avoid saying directly negative things about those characters or things inspired by real life and instead show their actions for readers to interpret. Let readers draw their own conclusions.
Readers are skilled at reading between the lines so authors can employ tried and true techniques to imply meaning without directly talking about someone or something.
Whether you include real people, celebrities, real events and stories or just use them for inspiration for your next project, printing your book is the final step in crafting a compelling story that your readers will love and will want to read over and over.
And working with a trusted printing company like Publishing Xpress can help you bring your fiction and nonfiction projects to life with a beautifully published book that looks great. From the expertly designed cover to the final pages, books at Publishing Xpress are transformed from concept to final published form with quality materials and professional support for authors of all levels of expertise.
With our wide range of options, four binding styles, outstanding customer service, quick turnaround times, and free shipping on orders over $399, you’ll be glad you trusted your book to Publishing Xpress and their outstanding services.
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