Using Real People in Your Manuscript – Legal and Practical Considerations

Memoirs and biographies are real stories about real people, places, and events. Using real people, places and events comes with heightened legal risks. An author needs to be particularly sensitive about the truthfulness and accuracy of the information. How will the person being written about feel if and when he or she reads your manuscript?

Here are some of the many considerations I always analyze when vetting manuscripts with my clients to assist in analyzing legal risks and to advise, as to each person and company mentioned in your manuscript, whether or not you must obtain written permission from each person (always the best practice), or take other action to avoid legal risks and to avoid ruining relationships. These considerations should also be applied when you write about a business or company.

–          Are you using real or fake names?

–          Are you using real places and locations?

–          Are you writing about people under 18 or children?

–          Have you discussed your inclusion of a person in your book with that person?

–          Have you considered that your memory of an event may be different from a person involved in the  event?

–          How is the person being portrayed?

–          Are you writing about the person in a positive or negative light?

–          How did you come by the information relating to the person or events?

–          Are you portraying anyone as dishonest, corrupt, as a criminal, mentally compromised, incompetent, perverted, promiscuous, disabled, as a drug or alcohol user, or associated with groups generally viewed as morally offensive such as hate groups?

–          Are your statements insulting, inflammatory or offensive?

–          What evidence do you have to support your portrayal of the character of someone?

–          How did you obtain the evidence to support your portrayal of a person?

–          Does your writing negatively affect someone’s reputation, including their professional or business reputation?

–          Are you disclosing information that may be protected as private facts known only to a few? Are you disclosing family secrets?

–          What might the family and friends of the person mentioned think about what you have written?

–          Have you engaged in fact finding that might be intrusive on the privacy of the person?

–          Are you using anyone’s image in photographs without their consent?

–          Are you disclosing any trade secrets, secrets protected by law (such as health and medical records)?

–          Are you disclosing confidential information, information subject to a confidentiality agreement or a confidential relationship you have with the person?

–          Are you disclosing information that is confidential in relationship to your job, work, marital situation, or employment?

–          Are you exposing something illegal or potentially dangerous?

–          What is your motive in writing about someone?

–          Are you writing from anger and resentment or are you trying to humiliate someone?

–          Are you exaggerating?

–          Are you writing about a former boss, ex-spouse, or someone who has offended or hurt you?

–          If you have changed the name and attributes of someone, is the added information or attributes offensive or likely to offend the person?

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Connie J. Mableson