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I’m thinking about developing a blog where the main character is fictional and has fictional relationships with well known celebrities and sports figures. Are there any legal ramifications for writing about celebs in this manner?

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5 Answers 5

IANAL. Courts have ruled that you can say a lot of things about "public figures" and they will not have grounds to sue. That said, if a person with a lot of money found what you said about him offensive, he could still sue you. He might not win, but you would have to hire a lawyer to defend yourself, take time off work to go to court, etc.

As others have noted, I would definitely avoid saying that a real person did something illegal or scandalous unless you want to go to court. If your story has a passing reference to the hero attending a concert by some famous singer or watching a politician give a political speech on television, no big deal. But if you say the politician accepted a bribe from him or he sold cocaine to the singer, I think you're just asking for trouble. If the reference to a celebrity is long, it could still be okay as long as it is innocuous. Like if, say, your hero is in the army, and you say that the president gave him a medal, and you relate some conversation between him and the president where they discuss how he earned the medal without presenting the president in a bad light, I doubt that would get you in trouble.

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I'm not a lawyer and my answer is based on the writing workshops I attended years ago.

At workshop, I was told that celebrities in your story ought to be "minor characters" so that the reader doesn't lose focus on your main characters. For instance, you might your main character see a (celebrity) Jane Doe concert with their boyfriend/girlfriend, and then react to something that she might have said or done at such a concert (as long as it is not clearly out of character). Here, the connection with the celebrity is "incidental," and it's understood that such a public figure would say or do things that impact the lives of millions of people, (hopefully) in a positive way. As long as these interactions are "random," your characters can go about their business (and Jane can go about hers) without being "the worse off for the wear."

The problem may arise if you allege that your fictitious character dated Jane, or was her BFF. Then the statements in your novel could potentially impact Jane's life, and if that's the case, it could be actionable, depending on the circumstances.

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One question that becomes very important is whether you are being positive or negative about the celebrities. If you are going to suggest that, for example, David Cameron had a gay affair with your lead character, then don't - you will get in trouble. If you are wanting to suggest that your lead character was at an official event that He spoke at, and talked to him about nothing significant, then you should be OK.

Picking up @VictorGs comment, you could use meaningless meetings with current people to provide reminiscences about past ( and dead ) characters that they have met, which can be more racy/ controversial.

I would suggest that there is a link on the blog that makes it clear that this is a fictional account - not necessarily prominent, but noticeable. Also, consider whether you would allow comments - probably not, unless it is critical to your project. YOu could get in trouble for comments that assume the blog is real, I think.

Disclaimer: IANAL.

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I am also not a lawyer but have experience in this matter. You may generally use a character in a work of fiction as long as they are in the public limelight. A celebrity, political figure, and so on. It has been upheld in court that since the person is a public figure they are open game for a fictional work. And as previously stated you may not use a picture or graphic representation of the person.

Furthermore, if what you or someone on your blog writes or comments about, you may get into trouble. Your level of tolerance and what offends someone else may be two separate items altogether.

My advice is to only write about persons already dead. I know this is not what you want to do, but here in the United States it's a lot safer. You can legally write ANYTHING you want about a dead person. It can be a story set when the person was alive and you can tell a totally fictionalized account of an event - or use them as a character in a fabricated story.

The caveat here is that you MAY NOT write about a person who is still alive. So if the dead person's wife or children or friends are still alive you have to leave them out of the story. Or get permission from them.

Just some food for thought. :-)

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Your advice regarding writing about persons already dead is not totally correct, at least as far as celebrities are concerned. One state here in the US (California) has restrictions on what you can write about deceased celebrities (See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Celebrities_Rights_Act) and New York was entertaining the act at one time as well. –  Tre Jun 26 '12 at 0:57

I AM NOT A LAWYER.

As long as it is clearly evident that the piece is fictional, my understanding is that you can basically employ celebrities however you like.

Major issues you generally want to avoid are:

  • libel and defamation
  • copyright violation
  • use of likeness without permission

But a fictional account (clearly presented as such, and not using copyrighted works or actual pictures of the celebrity) has none of these problems. See, for example, The Social Network, a dramatized account of the founding of Facebook, which played fast and loose with the facts and was produced without consent or cooperation from its subject, Mark Zuckerberg.

The major thing to watch out for, then, is looking as though your blog is nonfictional. In blog format that'll be a bit hard, because you probably don't want a disclaimer in every post. Make sure you can get something very clear into your design, maybe even a regular line in your RSS feed, to avoid anything approaching misleading appearances - because those could probably get you into trouble. But the act itself, publishing fiction involving real-life public figures - that should be perfectly OK.

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1  
Here's a conversation on the topic that goes into greater depth: ask.metafilter.com/106041/… –  Standback Jun 2 '12 at 21:02
    
Can't a celebrity with deep pockets still sue, or the company that has them under contract? No offense meant, but if you're really concerned about this, I suggest asking a lawyer to be safe. –  Neil Fein Jun 2 '12 at 21:25
    
People with deep pockets can always sue. In this case, my own humble understanding is that they don't have a leg to stand on. But IANAL, and legal advice is always fun and educational! –  Standback Jun 2 '12 at 21:27
    
Hey Standback! Thanks for your useful insights. –  cbartsie Jun 4 '12 at 17:48

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