I am not an attorney and this isn’t legal advice. Please consult with an attorney for any and all legal questions.
Last week, an author sent me a manuscript and something on the copyright page caught my attention. It stated that, while the book was a work of fiction, it contained real politicians as characters in the novel. Unfortunately, I had to deliver bad news to the author. He would need to go back to the drawing board, and do a major rewrite, which could take months, or longer.
Authors should NOT use real politicians or any other public figures in their fiction without permission. When you insert a real person into your novel, you are inserting them into a fictional setting, with fictional circumstances. You have them doing fictional things, and perhaps saying things they didn’t actually say. In a nutshell, you’re inventing things they haven’t actually done or said. It doesn’t matter that you called your work “fiction.” And, yes, they can absolutely sue you.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot here.
What if someone wrote a novel, and included you as a character? How would you feel if they were profiting from readers enjoying a false tale about you stealing from the government, or cheating on your spouse, or assaulting someone, or being responsible for some crime, or having a medical issue you never really had, or anything negative or embarrassing whatsoever? You would be mad enough to sue. Why? Because some readers would actually believe you did those things. Even though a novel is fiction, using a real person can make readers think some of those things actually occurred. Politicians and other public figures deserve the same rights.
Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean you can (intentionally or not) tarnish someone’s reputation for profit, putting them in seemingly benign situations that never occurred, and having them say and do things that also never happened.
You might think that your book can’t possibly harm their reputation but they would be the judge of that (as well as any actual judge or jury in the lawsuit they would probably bring against you). You could write something about them that may not seem offensive to you, but that angers them.
Here are some examples:
– Let’s say, in your book, your main character sees a well-known politician in a greasy spoon, wolfing down a big, juicy hamburger. And, later, PETA and voters go nuts because you didn’t know that person is a staunch vegan.
– What if your novel has an outspoken pro-life politician speaking at a pro-abortion rally? You might think it’s funny (or perhaps you didn’t even know they were pro-life) but I guarantee you the politician will be angry. Again, even though it’s fiction, it can harm their reputation.
– Your novel has a well-known Jewish politician attending a mosque.
– Your novel features a public figure known for their beautiful head of hair using Rogaine.
The possibilities are endless with fiction and any professional or personal thing you write about someone could cause them harm in some way. Even if you think what you’re writing is completely innocent, it can still anger them. Let’s say your politician is organizing a fund-raiser for a specific organization. And, what if you find out later that politician voted against a policy that relates to that type of charitable activity?
If you really want to use that person in your novel, you must reach out to their representative, and obtain written permission. If they consider your request (if you receive a reply AT ALL), they’re going to want to see a copy of the final, edited version of your book. And, their review process can take months or years.
Even if you cleverly change the name of that person, if anyone identifies that character with that real person, they can sue you.
And, no, you can’t use celebrities in your novel, either, without permission. Their names and brands are trademarked and you can’t use them for profit. And, you certainly can’t insert them into fictional scenarios. That’s a whole other lawsuit waiting to happen, just like the public figure examples above.
I know that, for some authors, it’s challenging to invent original, captivating characters. You must create their appearance, their speech, their mannerisms, their interests, their interactions, and their activities, all with your own imagination. That’s difficult!
But, what’s even more difficult? Sitting in a courtroom for days or weeks, and then paying a large judgment for the rest of your life.
- Featuring Real People in Your Writing? Protect Yourself From Lawsuits!
- Getting a Celebrity Interview or (Pardon Me, But I Believe You Dropped This Name)
- PUBLIC FIGURES AND LIBEL: “I want to write a tell-all book about a celebrity I once knew. Can a public figure sue me?”
- Can I Quote This Celebrity?
- Should I Contribute To This Celebrity’s Book?
- PAYING POLITICAL MARKETS FOR WRITERS!
About The Author
Angela Hoy is the publisher of WritersWeekly.com, the author of 19 books, and the co-owner of BookLocker.com (one of the original POD publishers that still gets books to market in less than a month), PubPreppers.com (print and ebook design for authors who truly want to self-publish), and Abuzz Press (the publishing co-op that charges no setup fees).
Angela lives on a 52' Irwin Center Cockpit Ketch (sailboat) with her family and pets. Keep up with her family's adventurous liveaboard lifestyle at GotNoTanLines.com
WritersWeekly.com - the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday.
BookLocker.com - 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."
Abuzz Press offers FAST and FREE book publication, but only accepts a small percentage of submissions, and only works with U.S. authors.
PubPreppers.com - "We Prep, You Publish!" Print and ebook design for authors who truly want to self-publish. Offers formatting and design services only, and then provides simple instructions for authors on where to sign up to have the print and ebook editions printed/listed/sold. Cut out the middle man. Keep 100% of what bookstores pay for your book!
Angela's POD Secrets Revealed Series can be found HERE.
Have a POD Book with another publisher? See if BookLocker can give you a better deal. (BookLocker offers "disgruntled author discounts" to those who want to move from other POD services.)
See BookLocker's publishing packages HERE.
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