Friday, April 24, 2009

Writing About Famous Dead People

Dear Rich: I am a writer (no, really, professionally published and everything) and am working on a novel in which I want to include a historical personage of the 20th century as a character. This gentleman died in the 1990s and was a labor leader who was much in the papers. He is not the protagonist of the book, but is a pivotal character. Would I get into trouble using his name and biographical details, or should I fictionalize the man out of all recognition? I'm so glad you asked. The short answer is, "Yes, you can safely resurrect a dead person in your fiction." The right of privacy (the right to be left alone) does not apply after death, and the right of publicity (the right to control the commercial exploitation of your name or persona) usually does not extend beyond death (and it's very unlikely in this case, especially if it's clear it's a work of fiction).  In addition, you cannot defame a dead person. Since you are a professional, your book contract will likely contain a provision that you must pay legal fees if anybody sues you over the content. Although you should feel fairly certain that you will not run into problems, keep in mind that the Dear Rich staff does not have all the facts and has not reviewed your work blah blah blah. In other words, we cannot guarantee your outcome, although we would feel confident doing it ourselves. (In fact we're thinking about writing a novel about Richard James, co-inventor of the Slinky, who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, left the wife and kids to join enthusiastic evangelicals in Bolivia. Then, his wife turned the company around and made the Slinky a world-wide phenomenon. But I guess we digress.) Ennyway, don't worry about it. Go write a great novel.