Featuring Real People in Your Writing? Protect Yourself From Lawsuits! – Angela Hoy

Featuring Real People in Your Writing? Protect Yourself From Lawsuits! – Angela Hoy
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I am not an attorney. I’m just someone who’s been in the publishing business for 18 years and I’ve seen pretty much anything and everything, including authors getting sued after penning facts about past incidents in their lives. Please consult with an attorney for legal advice.


Last week an author submitted a book that contained some of his friends’ life experiences. I, of course, asked him if he had obtained legal releases from his friends to include their stories in his book. He had not.

What’s the big deal, you ask? His friends voluntarily contributed to the book, right? Yes, they did. But, they might change their minds about doing so someday. The stories were about his friends’ health and financial circumstances after retirement. Why would they sue? Well, let’s say Friend A let Author X write about his heart condition. Then, let’s say Friend A lost his insurance later because his heart condition was documented in an excerpt in the book online – easily found by the insurance company but not divulged to them when he signed up for that policy. He could say that he never understood his story could lead to insurance problems later and that the author should have explained that to him. Without a contract, he could even claim he never actually gave authorization to have his story published.

Friend B shared his financial circumstances with Author X. Perhaps Friend B shared some details that he hadn’t shared with his ex-wife during their divorce and his wife now wants some of the money he socked away. Of course, she learned about his hidden funds by reading Author X’s book. This is another case when a subject might change her mind about being featured later, and try to get compensation from the author for his trouble.

Some people with money problems can get desperate and will sue anybody and everybody in order to preserve their financial stability (or simply to just earn a buck). I’m not saying either one of the lawsuits would be successful but they have a much better chance of stickin’ it to Author X if he hasn’t obtained a release protecting himself and his publisher from any future legal claims by his friends.

I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again because it’s a perfect example of what can happen when you share information about a real individual in your writing. One author wrote his memoirs, and told how he came home from the service to find his teenage daughter was pregnant. When he released his book, his daughter, now middle-aged, threatened to sue him for invasion of privacy. And, yes, the author’s attorney confirmed she did indeed have a case.

Another author had to hire a lawyer after his brother threatened to sue him for sharing in his book that they were both victims of child abuse. The story was true. The brother admitted that much. But, he claimed sharing it was humiliating to him and an invasion of his privacy.

This article isn’t about protecting yourself by anonymizing your story. I’ve already written about that many times in the past. In fact, Don’t Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir is one of my most popular articles.

What I am going to do today is encourage you to protect yourself if you choose not to anonymize your story. How? Have an attorney draw up a simple, airtight legal release that gives you and your publisher permission to publish the person’s story, or details about their life. By signing the notarized release, they give up all future claims for you doing so. That means they can’t change their mind later and sue.

I’m not an attorney so I can’t give you specific legal advice (you should definitely have an attorney draw up the contract if you need one of these!) but I can tell you that you should have your attorney list yourself, your co-author (if any) and any other person/firm associated with your book, including your publisher in the release. If you don’t, one of those could get sued and they could then sue you for taking action (or failing to take action) that resulted in a lawsuit against them.

At THIS LINK you can find a sample of a “release of all claims” form that was designed to settle a dispute. It gives you a good idea about what “all claims” can mean (“any and all actions, causes of action, claims, demands, damages, costs, loss of services, expenses and compensation on account of, or in any way growing out of, any and all known and unknown personal injuries and property damage”), etc.

Remember that anybody can sue you for anything. Telling the truth does not protect you from getting sued. It might protect you from losing – but you could still lose if you don’t have proof! If it gets that far, you’ll have spent thousands in legal fees. You can avoid this by simply getting a standard release from your attorney for all those who contributed to, or were featured in, your book.

Rule of thumb is, if you’re telling a story about a real person in your book (non-fiction or fiction), always, ALWAYS obtain a notarized release, written by your attorney and signed by that individual, even if you have changed their name and other identifying characteristics in your book. That makes it very difficult for them to pursue you later in court.

For information on anonymizing characters in your book that are based on real people, see: Don’t Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir

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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