An author recently asked me about using real people (friends, relatives, acquaintances) in a novel. I told her doing so would be very risky from a legal standpoint.
She assumed just calling the book “fiction” would protect her from a lawsuit.
She also assumed simply changing a few names would also protect her from a lawsuit.
She then sent me this quote from lawinfo.com:
Can I Be Sued For Defamation Of Character If I Am Writing A Book Based On A True Story?
If you place a “disclaimer” at the beginning that the people and events have been changed to protect the innocent, and that any similarities to actual persons, either living or dead, are merely coincidental, it is not considered defamation of character and you can’t be sued.
If anybody can identify the person(s) you are writing about, yes, you can absolutely be sued, even if you’ve changed their name. And, the term “you can’t be sued” is dead wrong. Anybody can sue anybody for anything and there’s no shortage of slimy lawyers that are happy to file frivolous lawsuits in the hopes of a quick pay off. The question of who wins is, of course, important but the legal fees leading up to a win or loss can bankrupt you and/or your publisher.
Just because a website has the word “law” in the URL does not mean it always provides good legal advice. I strongly urge you to consult an attorney before you publish your book.
I just emailed lawinfo.com and lambasted them for publishing that.
I don’t know if you ever read the bestselling novel Running With Scissors but it was based on actual events from the author’s life. He changed everybody’s name, but the family that he described in his book sued him. He settled with them out of court. Read more about that case HERE.
So, you see, yes, you CAN be sued for using real people in fiction even if you change names and publish a disclaimer. Never, ever assume that you “can’t be sued.” Doing so leads to reckless behavior, and boldly assuming you are immune to lawsuits will more than likely lead to a lawsuit against you.
DON’T MISS THIS EXCELLENT ARTICLE BY ATTORNEY MARK FOWLER!
Could I Be Liable for Libel in Fiction?
Angela Hoy is the co-owner of WritersWeekly.com and BookLocker.com. WritersWeekly.com is the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday. According to attorney Mark Levine, author of The Fine Print, BookLocker is: “As close to perfection as you’re going to find in the world of ebook and POD publishing. The ebook royalties are the highest I’ve ever seen, and the print royalties are better than average. BookLocker understands what new authors experience, and have put together a package that is the best in the business. You can’t go wrong here. Plus, they’re selective and won’t publish any manuscript just because it’s accompanied by a check. Also, the web site is well trafficked. If you can find a POD or epublisher with as much integrity and dedication to selling authors’ books, but with lower POD publishing fees, please let me know.”
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