October 23, 2023

Can I Mention Real People's Names in My Book?

As a seasoned publisher of non-fiction works, including memoirs, this is a common query we address. Understandably, your life story would be incomplete without referencing real people who've been a part of it. However, it's essential to strike a balance between honesty and legality. Let's look at the facts to help you make an informed decision using real names in your writing without getting entangled in legal troubles.

The Essence of Defamation and Privacy:

Positivity is Key: Generally, if your mention of someone is in a positive or neutral light, you're on safer ground. Thanking someone in your acknowledgments doesn't usually require their approval. However, painting them in a harmful light, especially if it could damage their reputation, is where you tread into risky territory. It's not about lighthearted jabs; it's the severe allegations, like hinting someone might be involved in illegal activities, that you need to be wary of.

Understanding Defamation: Laws vary depending on where you are. In the U.S., for example, for someone to prove defamation, they typically need need to demonstrate that a false statement of fact was made about an identifiable person, was published, caused reputational harm, and was made with malice or negligence. Truth is a defense against defamation, but be cautious – mere opinions can sometimes be construed as statements of fact.

Privacy Concerns: Even if you're speaking the truth, unveiling private, embarrassing, or unpleasant details about someone can lead to an invasion of privacy lawsuit. For instance, revealing information about someone's health condition without their consent can be problematic. However, actions in public spaces are generally not protected under privacy laws.

The Right of Publicity: Unauthorized use of someone's name, image, or other identifiable features for promotional purposes can land you in hot water. This isn't just about celebrities. Even ordinary individuals have rights to their own likeness.

Profession-specific Restrictions: Professionals like lawyers, doctors, and therapists have ethical obligations to maintain confidentiality. Breaching these can lead to legal repercussions and professional sanctions.

Writing about real people in your book is a delicate task, blending art with respect for legal boundaries. As you pen down your life's experiences, remember that the goal is to share your story, not to harm others or attract lawsuits. Stay informed, seek advice, and always write with empathy and integrity.

For further reading, you may want to check out Helen Sedwick's excellent article on the same theme.

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