Thursday, January 9, 2020

Libel in Fiction

Q: My main character is loosely based on a real person. I mean, that's who inspired me. I never identify him by name (he's my ex-friend) and I've made up 90% of the events that happen in the book. I'm worried after the book becomes successful, that he'll come back and try to take a stake in the millions.  What can I do to prevent this?  - GWB

A:  So you ask, “How do you discourage your friend from becoming a plaintiff after reading your novel and fictional portrayal of him?”

A basic understanding of libel law is helpful. Libel is defined as a false and defamatory statement of fact communicated to a third-party about an identifiable living person that damages their reputation. While it's logical to assume that a work of fiction that describes a world that doesn't exist is incapable of defaming a real person, that's not the law.    
For a novel, or other fictional work to be actionable, its detail must be convincing. The description of the fictional character must be so closely aligned with a real person that someone who knows that person would have no difficulty linking the two. And, there must be an implicit belief that what the author wrote – notwithstanding disclaimers – was true. What about a fictionalized autobiography?  If a character (i) is depicted in a defamatory manner; (ii) is recognizable; and (iii) a reasonable reader can understand the defamatory statement to refer to the that person, there's no veil of fiction to hide behind for purposes of libel law.   

Happily for writers (and The Weekly World News) when the original upon which a fictional character is based sues the claim generally doesn't survive summary judgment. That's because courts recognize a number of defenses and privileges to defamation claims, including substantial truth and statements of opinion. Another reason many defamation lawsuits fail is that the plaintiff fails to make their case.  Under U.S. defamation law the plaintiff bears the burden of proving the defendant acted negligently.

Despite the breathing space the First Amendment affords writers, not all libel-in-fiction lawsuits are resolved in favor of the author,  their publisher or producer partners. For example, in 2009 in the “Red Hat Club" case, the plaintiff was awarded $100,000 in damages by a Georgia court for a fictional portrayal modeled on her. The “original” claimed that her fictional double, falsely depicted in the bestselling novel as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic who drank on the job, defamed her.  From a libel defense perspective, this drawn-from-life portrayal failed, in part, because the author (and former friend) included personal characteristics that made the plaintiff recognizable, and mixed them with other traits that were false and defamatory, but, still believable.

Now back to your question. Are you sure you never identify the real person who inspired your main character? Aside from their name, can they be identified from their ethnicity, appearance, historical, employment or other details found in your book, so that someone who knew them (or knew of them), could identify them and assume that the statements in your book were truthful? While you may not identify your ex-friend by name, if you haven’t completely disguised the person, the likelihood of a successful claim for falsely portraying them increases. Is your friend a public official or public figure?  If so, they have another hurdle to jump.  Unless he can prove by clear and convincing evidence that what you wrote was deliberately or recklessly false, there's a good chance - but no guarantee - you'll be excused from liability under what's known as the "Actual Malice Standard."

When Fiction & Reality Collide

Merely changing the name of your friend isn’t enough.  You might consider transforming him beyond recognition. Why? Courts consider plausibility.  A broadly drawn caricature of your friend, which is difficult to reconcile with your ex-friend, can be an effective device to stave off a libel lawsuit. For example, Kim Pring, a former Ms. Wyoming, sued Penthouse over an article that described Ms. Pring’s ability to cause men to levitate by performing oral sex. Initially, the Federal District Court found for Miss Pring awarding her $26.5 million in damages.  On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision holding that no reasonable person could believe that was described was actual facts. Be outrageous. If the reader accepts the novel as pure fiction, libel will not be found.  Parody – if done properly can take the chill out of free speech.  [Note the italicized “if”].  If done improperly, and the hypothetical reasonable reader thinks your failed parody conveys actual facts, the First Amendment may not be available to you.  "Obvious cues" like levitation or time travel can help telegraph what is First Amendment protected fiction from fact. When it doubt, have the book vetted by a publishing attorney.        
Here’s a run-down of a few techniques that can minimize the chance of getting sued for libel in fiction: (a) use disclaimers (more about that later); (b) disassociate the doppelgänger from their real-life counterpart by writing composite characters; (c) depict but do not disparage; and (d) wait for the real-life person to die before publishing your fiction. Under U.S. libel law, if the original is dead their estate cannot sue for libel (unless the suit was begun while the deceased was still alive).  If (d) gives you an additional reason to outlive your literary prey, consider it my gift to you. And remember, he who laughs last, laughs best. With regard to option (d), revenge is best served cold at your publication party -- preferably with a Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, or Gewurztraminer. 

Disclaimers, while helpful, are by nature, self-serving. While a disclaimer cannot insulate you from a libel suit, it may support the defense that identification with the real person in your work is unreasonable. The words “A Novel” in the subtitle of a book is considered by some attorneys to be the best form of disclaimer.  In addition, a full disclaimer should appear on the reverse title page of your novel, or skillfully integrated into the introduction or preface of your book. Closing credits in a motion picture might read: 

"Certain characters, characterizations, incidents, locations and dialogue were fictionalized or invented for purposes of dramatization . . . [W]ith respect to such fictionalization or invention, any similarity to the name or to the actual character or history of any person . . . or any product or entity or actual incident, is entirely for dramatic purposes and not intended to reflect an actual character, history, product of entity." [Closing credits to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.]

Change the physical characteristics of your main character enough to disguise their identity. The risk of being sued is reduced if your characters are likeable and honest, rather than than vicious unscrupulous miscreants. While it's tempting to retaliate in print against those who have injured us, if a character drawn from life isn’t likable, and you can't support that depiction with sufficient evidence, fictionalization or rewriting becomes essential.    

Create your own Frankenstein monster - a single character stitched together from a combination of personalities, physical traits and biographical details of others. A composite character provides evidence that no real person was portrayed - or defamed.  If the fictional other is not "of or concerning" an identifiable person, you have a viable defense to libel.    

I would be remiss if I did not bring up three other legal threats all writers face. First, defamation lawsuits can be triggered by mis-identification. The law of defamation is not concerned with who you intended to target, but who gets struck by your barbed arrow. Unintentional defamation is actionable. "Woops!" is not a viable defense. From a legal perspective, where the  arrow lands - not where you intended it to fall - is what matters. Lawyers who vet, and writers who write, need to watch out for same-named individuals who are falsely, but, believably, misidentified. 

While publication of truthful information is generally considered a complete defense to libel, private individuals can still sue for highly offensive or embarrassing truths. So, if your book goes too far and reveals intimate areas of a person’s life – intimate matters  concerning their sexuality, family life, medical procedures, and mental (in)capacity – you may invite a right of privacy claim.  Are there defenses? Yes, but, that's beyond the scope of this post.

The right of publicity involves the unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness for commercial gain. It is related to the right of privacy. Fortunately for novelists, due to free speech considerations, courts historically construe publicity rights narrowly.  But, that’s the subject of another Q&A.

If you feel uncomfortable with the legal minefield of libel, right of privacy and right of publicity law, consult a media law or publishing attorney. They will review your manuscript for potential liability and suggest ways to mitigate or avoid many of the risks associated with writing about real people and actual events.

Disclaimer: This article discuss legal issues of general interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice concerning any specific circumstances. Libel law is fact specific and national consistency is lacking. Each state applies the law of that state within its own borders, provided it does not conflict with  Constitutional law as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. Many countries do not recognize the protections the U.S. give authors and publishers. We strongly advise that you obtain professional legal advice before acting upon any of the information contained in this blog post.

(c) 2016.  Updated 2020.


Smith v. Stewart (Red Hat Club Case)
Pring v. Penthouse
Bindrim v. Mitchell (case ended badly for the author) 
Carter-Clark v. Random House (Court of Appeals)
Carter-Clark v. Random House (Supreme Court)

Libel in Fiction Quotes

"I don't get hurt or bleed; hair doesn't muss, it's one of the advantages of being imaginary." 
    - Ted Baxter in the The Purple Rose of Cairo
"All literature is gossip."  - Truman Capote

"Novelists are inspired gossips." 
    - Margaret Drabble

“But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives---all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose."
    - Thomas Wolfe's Preface to Look Homeward Angel

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