Writing About People
By Robert Moskowitz
Good fiction tells stories about people. And some of the best stories
are real ones, actually lived by actual persons. Not only are many real
stories interesting, but audiences want to read about "real" stories
even more than they want to read pure fiction. That's why so many
stories are sold as "ripped from the headlines" or "based on a true
The problem for a writer who wants to write about people is, if you
write about a real person, you need their permission before you can sell
what you've written. And not everyone who lived a great story wants you
to write about it. They may want to sell it to another writer, or they
may not want anyone at all to write about them.
So what's a writer to do?
You have to take liberties with the truth. But don't take my word on any
of this! Consult a knowledgeable attorney to protect yourself!
The general rule is: If an average person who reads your story or sees
it on the screen has a good chance to identify the people you are
writing about, then you need those people's written permission to write
about them. However, if the people in your story are not recognizable as
particular individuals, then there is no one in a position to give you
permission, and quite logically you also have no need of anyone's
permission to write and sell your story.
Two key things to remember are:
1) Everyone gets married. Everyone has parents. Lots of people wear
glasses. Lots of people buy red cars. Those kinds of elements in your
story are generic and do not serve to identify particular individuals.
You can include them in your story without fear of penalty. What's more,
there are certain "required scenes" (called "scenes a faire" in legal
terminology) that must happen in any good story. If your hero turns and
confronts his attacker, it may echo what happened in another story or
what happened in real life to a particular person. But a confrontation
is a required scene when writing drama, so the existence of the scene in
your story is not considered proof that you stole the idea. On the other
hand, if your story contains characters who grew up in a certain town at
a certain time, got married at a certain age in a certain location,
worked at a certain company, had certain special talents or interests,
had a certain number of children in specific years, lived in a certain
kind of house in a certain neighborhood, and so forth, these are not
"scenes a faire," and in fact they convey enough specific material so a
reader can easily identify a real individual on whom you modeled your
character, and now you need permission.
2) Every successful novel and screenplay draws lawsuits. If you write a
good story, you'll definitely get sued by people claiming you stole
their idea, you modeled your story after their life, or both. Since you
can't avoid this, don't try. And don't worry about it. A portion of your
profits will go to legal defense. That's the nature of our society. Just
make sure you document where you get your ideas for your stories (aside
from real news events, we're talking about meetings with friends, first
drafts you write and then rewrite, etc), so when the suits do come, you
can show they are without merit.
Some questions and
1)What is the
situation with popular TV shows that seem taken from the head lines.
They change the story but its still noticeable.
Popular TV shows hav a lot of money. They may pay something for the
rights. Or they may have lawyers on staff to vet the stories so they're
not liable, and/or to deflect or defend any lawsuits that may come in.
When you have billions, you can do the same.
2) What if the story is from overseas?
Less chance they'll see what you do. But anyone can sue at any time, so
why leave yourself exposed? If they sue you over there, you may never be
able to travel to that country again without having to pay the financial
judgment against you!
3) What if you are writing about a serial killer, do they have rights?
Yes, they have rights. Plus
they're not allowed to profit from their crimes, so the families of the
victims are probably entitled to the killer's earnings and would
probably come after you for the money. You've got to get the killer's
permission and then you've also got to deal with the victims' families.
Isn't it easier to change your story enough so this is not a problem?
4) What about the films that are biased on a unauthorized biography?
"Famous" people have fewer
rights to their own stories. The line is fuzzy. You can write about a
specific celebrity all you want and s/he can't stop you, but if you say
something too offensive, s/he can sue you. "The truth" is a valid
defense, of course, but celebrities have enough lawyers to cause you a
real expensive problem, even if s/he doesn't prevail in court. If you
want to write about a celebrity, be very sure you don't step over the
fuzzy line. Study what other people are writing about other celebrities.
Look at some of the lawsuits filed by celebrities to see where the line
might begin -- not just the cases celebrities win, but the lawsuits they
file: you don't want them filing against you. If there is any doubt at
all, have an experienced attorney look over your story and make changes
until s/he feels strongly that you're not going to get sued for it.