View Full Version : Legal or other issues on real people in novels

07-14-2010, 08:58 AM
Do any of you have experience, or can anyone suggest a source of information on the legal ramifications (if any) on using the name of a popular public figure in my book?

I have completed a novel in which the MC has a (harmless) fixation on a famous media personality Ė letís say itís Oprah Ė and although the story itself has nothing to do with Oprah, the MCís thoughts and actions are driven by her admiration of this person who has had a tremendous positive influence on her.

Is it legal to use a real personís name, if it is someone that has purposely created a public persona and is so widely known? It could be Madonna, or Steven Colbert, or President Obama for that matter. I believe my question is the same for any public figure.

If so, would there be some restrictions on what you could write?

Is there a previous thread on this, because I couldnít find anything?

Thanks in advance for any guidance you can provide.

Kathie Freeman
07-14-2010, 07:29 PM
Celebrities and other public figures are fair game as far as their public personna goes. Anything that's been in the mainstream media can legally be used, but I'd be careful about using negative publicity in a novel. You can't speculate on their private lives, but your character can have a crush or an obsession. A famous example of this is the movie "Dear Mr. Gable" (I think that's what it was called) where Judy Garland has a crush on Clark Gable and sings the song "You made Me Love You".

Drachen Jager
07-14-2010, 07:53 PM
I think it's okay to use someone famous as long as they're playing themselves. I remember a while back there was an issue with Todd McFarlane naming one of the characters in Spawn "Tony Twist", which happened to be the name of a hockey player who sued.

"In the Spawn comic book series, Todd McFarlane created a mob enforcer character named Antonio "Tony Twist" Twistelli,[2] who McFarlane acknowledged was named after Tony Twist. Twist won a $15 million verdict in 2004 when a St. Louis, Missouri jury found Todd McFarlane Productions had profited from Twist's likeness.[3] The verdict was upheld after two appeals in June 2006." - Wikipedia

07-14-2010, 08:50 PM
I knew I could count on AWers to bring interesting perspectives to this question!

It seemed logical to me that people who put themselves in the public eye would be okay with further public exposure (if positive). So thank you for confirming this.

Since this public figure never enters into my story personally, but only influences the MC indirectly through the massive multimedia entity she created, there is no question of speculating on her private life or using her name for another character (although that is an interesting case). Itís just that her name appears frequently in the story, so I wondered if it would come up on some legal radar somewhere.

Thank you both very much for your answers.

Drachen Jager
07-15-2010, 02:30 AM

If she's not even a character it should be totally okay. Check out, "fair use". I think anything that you can get away with under fair use would be okay involving actual people's names too.


07-15-2010, 08:23 AM
This is exactly what I was looking for - I just didn't know the right question to ask. Thank you SO MUCH!

The wiki article on fair use led me to look up this article on publaw which really delves into fair use of trademark names:


which provides an even more detailed checklist for proper use of trademark in fiction.

Thanks again.

08-03-2010, 04:16 AM
A twist on the original question:

What if I want to use, as a main character name (the villain, actually) the name of a real, relatively obscure person in recent history? I want to name my baby-kidnapper after Dr. Dafoe -- the man who was partially responsible (along with the Canadian government) for adopting/stealing the Dionne Quintuplets in the 30's, and putting them on display. He died in the 40's.

I wouldn't use the same first name, but after the story unfolds anyone who happens to know the real story might recognize the provenance of the name.

So, first of all, is it too "cute"? I actually want it to be a sort of early clue to his character. (The story is a VERY fictionalized sci-fi account of similar events) Second, is it legally iffy? I looked at the Wikipedia article suggested in this thread and can't decide.


Kathie Freeman
08-06-2010, 08:57 PM
NOT a good idea! Naming a villian after a real person, even disguised, can open you up to a lawsuit from them or their heirs.

08-07-2010, 10:00 AM
Read up on libel asap