|Margaret Mead, anthropologist|
Dear Rich: I'm writing a novel based on a scientific experiment that was well-publicized at the time. There has since been a documentary on the subject, as well as numerous newspaper articles. The head scientist is now deceased. However, the woman who ran most of the study is not. Some of her diaries of the experiment were also published in 1969. I'm reimagining the story from her perspective, giving credit to her and her work in the acknowledgments. It’s similar to Lily King's book, Euphoria, based on Margaret Mead's experiences. I’d also like to take the experiment as a jumping-off point, changing the names and locations and key details, though not the overall events. I’d state that I used the original experiment as inspiration but that no character was based on a real person, etc. Will I get in trouble?
Probably not. Courts give novelists wide latitude when creating characters from real people and when fictionalizing true events. Still, fiction can trigger a lawsuit in three ways: if you defame/libel someone (that is, you harm someone by publishing something untrue), if you invade someone’s privacy, or if you infringe someone’s copyright.
Defamation and invasion of privacy. For purposes of defamation and invasion of privacy, you only need to be concerned with living people. The dead can’t suffer these types of injuries. Also, you probably don’t have to be concerned if your characters are based on public figures because the first amendment gives novelists a lot of leeway. Typically, non-public figures who may be recognizable precipitate most lawsuits. Lower your chances of a lawsuit by changing names, physical characteristics, and other identifying features of the real people upon which the characters are based (and here is some additional guidance).
Copyright infringement. You're free to use facts and concepts, but fiction authors get sued when they lift chunks of descriptive material, or when they borrow characters from others, or when they use unpublished materials. This may be an issue if you borrow lengthy sections from the study manager’s diary, assuming it’s protected under copyright.
PS Dept. If you secure a publishing agreement, the agreement will require you to guarantee that publishing your book won’t result in a lawsuit (a principle known as indemnity). Before signing a deal, you should have your book vetted by a literary attorney.