Over the holiday, Kristin from Florida asked if she could use a current news story in her fiction without being sued. This question arises often and in various permutations, like writing about relatives, celebrities, politicians, historical figures, or past events. I would venture to say that most writers have pondered this issue at least once. We read a bizarre news story online, watch an enthralling news broadcast, or find a compelling historical event, then make a mental note to self – That would make a great novel.
And a second note to self – What are the legal consequences?
As with most legal questions, the answer depends on the facts, or in Kristin’s case, how she intends to use the news event in her fiction.
Just the Facts
In general, facts obtained from a news story, whether current or historical, are fair game for fiction. Such insight can form the basis of a plot (a plane crash in the Indian Ocean, a brutal killing of a citizen by police, a child murdered in a suburban home). It can inspire a twist or three during a protagonist’s journey (an art studio fire, a nightclub massacre, an overturned school bus). It can become backstory that informs the reader about character motivations and personality (a high-profile divorce, the accidental death of a beloved pop icon, a bullied adolescent).
Real-world events, just like real people and history, cannot help but influence writers when creating fictional stories. Our writing is based on observation of the world around us. Fact gathering helps build our plots and develop our characters, making both realistic and believable.
Be inspired by true events. Borrow real world events for a fictional story. Fictionalize the facts. Mold them to fit your fictional story. But be aware, there are limits.
Defamation, Right of Privacy, and Right of Publicity
When inspiration from a news article turns into blatant copying, the writer has crossed the line. For example, the writer adheres too closely to the news story making it apparent to a reader who the real people are. The fictional characters look, sound, and behave like the people in the news story. The events are too identical to the news story. Thus the writer has not changed anything from the original news event but instead copied the facts verbatim and used the real people as their characters without bothering to change traits or adjust facts to fit their own fictional characters and predicaments (which from a craft standpoint may not be wise, because real life events rarely make perfect plots, and real life people rarely make perfect characters).
Such wholesale reproductions of real people and the facts surrounding their lives can put a writer at risk of defending themselves against claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, and misappropriation of the right of publicity. For example, say Kristin adheres to the facts of a news article for her plot, uses the real people as models for her characters, but adds fictional tidbits that falsely portray one character as a misogynistic alcoholic. Kristin may be facing a defamation suit. Or maybe she adds a few embarrassing facts about the real person that were not public, facts she obtained from extra research or interviews which harm the real person’s reputation (a misogynistic alcoholic rapist) – invasion of privacy. Or maybe she uses the real person on the cover to help promote the book without permission – misappropriation of the right of publicity.
There are, of course, exceptions to claims of defamation, right of privacy, and right of publicity. For more information and how to navigate around the legal conundrums, see my earlier Sidebar Saturdays post. Or there are several other pertinent articles available: Kathryn Goldman’s How to Use Celebrities and Other Real People in Your Story, Helen Sedwick’s How to Use Real People in Your Writing Without Ending Up in Court, and Lloyd Jassin’s The Legal Consequences of Using Real People in Fiction.
Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism
If Kristin intends to use the news article verbatim, there are two issues she should be concerned with: copyright infringement and plagiarism. See my earlier Sidebar Saturdays post to understand the difference between copyright and plagiarism. The former has legal ramifications; the latter, ethical.
Copying a news article without permission or a license from the copyright owner (normally the publisher or author), could subject Kristin to a claim of copyright infringement unless the article is in the public domain or the use is considered fair. Since the news article Kristin wants to use is current, I assume the article is still protected by copyright. Thus Kristin should seek permission or secure a license unless the fair use doctrine applies (for more information about fair use, see Brad Frazer’s article or this Stanford University article).
If the news article is historical, then the copyright could have lapsed depending on the publication date, leaving the article in the public domain. In general, if the article is published before 1923 the copyright has lapsed. There are many resources that explain public domain and help determined the duration and status of a copyright (see these articles from Stanford, Cornell, and the Copyright Office).
If Kristin copies the news article or paraphrases without attribution this would constitute plagiarism and is considered unethical. To understand how to avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement, see my earlier Sidebar Saturdays post.
Lastly, my standard disclaimer – This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.
Now go read some news and be inspired!