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Will I Get Sued if I Use Real Names in my Memoir?

Categories: Legal Questions.
Q: I am writing a memoir and need to know if I can use real names in the book. I am going to write about some terrible experiences and some don’t show people in a favorable light. Can I use their names? Also, how can I be sure to protect myself from any possible litigation? –Anonymous
 
A: Writing about real people in your life is tricky, especially if you cast them in a negative light. Once you put it into print there’s always a possibility of a lawsuit. Augusten Burroughs, rightly or wrongly, was sued by the family of his psychiatrist for Running With Scissors (the family accused him of making up events to make his book more marketable).

According to legal expert (and friend of “WD”) Howard G. Zaharoff, there are two rights you must respect: disclosure and defamation.
 
“The right to avoid disclosure of truthful but embarrassing private facts is the first right,” says Zaharoff. “For example, I am reading John Sandford’s latest Prey novel, in which a well-known politician is accused of having sex with an underage woman. She offers proof that she had sex with him by describing two semicolon shaped freckles on his testicles. Unless they are relevant to an important and truthful account you need to tell, I would avoid that kind of disclosure.”

OK, I’ll give you a moment to get that mental picture out of your head. But you get the point. Don’t share negative or embarrassing information unless it’s absolutely necessary to your story. It can only hurt you. Back to Zaharoff:

“Second, U.S. law prohibits defamation, that is, oral or written falsehoods that hold the subject up to scorn or ridicule. Every negative statement you make about a living person must be true and, ideally, supported by evidence.”

Of course, if you say something so awful about a person you will always risk a lawsuit, particularly where your only support is your word. And, Zaharoff notes, that’s a costly experience even if you ultimately win, and there is no guarantee you will.
 
So the real question is, How do you tell your story without risking any form of litigation? Disguise the names and biographical data and make sure that no one can identify the subjects from your description. Use a pseudonym if need be. And ALWAYS (it’s in all caps for a reason) talk with a knowledgeable lawyer first. A little cash now can save you a lot of cash in the future.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of
Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Friday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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16 Responses to Will I Get Sued if I Use Real Names in my Memoir?

  1. looking4trth says:

    Question:
    I wrote and published a memoir in 2008…two individuals have been pirating and using my “work” as evidence in a civil litigation since 2008, with litigation continuing to this day. I wrote an HTML security code to protect my work from being downloaded or “right-clicked;” Didn’t stop them! They circumvented the code. Is there any specific Copyright law that pertains exclusively to memoirs?

    Thank you,
    L4T

  2. NickN says:

    I’m writing a historical novel in which some of the protagonists are real people who held positions in the United States Government. Do I need their permission to use their names and their positions?

    For example, if I need to write about the U.S. Ambassador in Chile in 1974, but cannot use his real name in the book, then his title and date of service alone would give away his identity. Would I be exposing myself to a lawsuit?

  3. Naiwa says:

    Please get back to me asap and send me an email with your response. I am writing a memoir and going over some legal issues while in the process. I have a few questions about names. I ahve changed every name in my book except my own, but I have also wrote some negative things about my mother (truthful things, however). I’m sure she would be furious if I wrote them, but would it be illegal? I don’t use her name. I just call her mom. But since I use my own name, could people not assume who she is? What would be the best way to go about this? Thanks.

  4. Mary says:

    Can I talk about the host, write and discribe a segemnt of a comedy TV show episode in my historical fiction book?

  5. Mary says:

    Can I talk about the host, write and discribe a segemnt of a comedy TV show episode in my historical fiction book?

  6. Carrie Marie says:

    Dear Brian,
    I have a couple questions. I’ve recently written a short story about my life and the struggles I had growing up. It is interesting because I titled it My Life Poem, it’s a true story of my life to date which I’m only eighteen. It’s formatted like a poem and has components of a poem as well, but for it only being thirteen pages it’s very detailed and has five parts. Well any who, like I typed before it’s a true story, so I put real names of the some people that influenced my life in some way, but only the first name of each person. I am asking, if I could have a lawsuit against me for just putting the first names?
    Though I did put the last names of the families I knew as a whole. Although nothing was said that was banishing these families, I would like to know if I had to get permission to use their last names, or should I just change them to be safe?

  7. Marcie Summerlin says:

    Is it OK to use names of real stores, TV shows, brands, etc. in your writing?

  8. I think you should ask those persons if they let you use there names or not.

  9. Laurie Boggs says:

    Dear Brian,

    I have a couple of questions. First I have written a memoir and I used my maiden and the biographical area. They are major components of the manuscript. Like Nanette, I was also raised by dysfunctional parents because of Alcoholism. Both of my parents have passed. I am not as worried about my siblings as much as my aunts and uncles. They did not live in our house of course to see our parents in their worst state. But I am compelled to write about my childhood to educate the reader the truth about alcoholism and how it affects a child. My passion behind my story is my son, Preston; he was killed by a drunk driver. Do I need to get signed releases from my aunts and uncles, even if my parents have passed?

    Second question: I write about the drunk driver, his girlfriend and his two children. They were all killed in the wreck that killed my son. This was a major crash and there were numerous articles in the daily newspapers. Since they passed do I have to be concerned or should I change their names?

    Thank you for your help.

  10. Peter Scott says:

    If I set up a blog and people contribute stories, whether by email or posting comments through their browser (like you are doing here), what do I have to do to be able to use what they have written in a book? Post some kind of notice on the site, get their permission individually, or nothing at all?

  11. Keith Reed says:

    As I plug through the GAN I am writing, I am at a point where I need some medical advice (no, not psychiatric), rather, my subject has contracted a (to be) fatal illness. I would like a physician or an oncology nurse to answer a few questions about this disease. How does one go about compensating a willing subject matter expert? Of course they will be in acknowledgements, however, offering a share of royalties seems a bit overboard. I was thinking of free book? money? (don’t have a lot of that). What have others found to be reasonable?

  12. Tena Thompson says:

    I’m writing a self-help book. In it I have websites listed to further assist the reader. Do I need the permission of the website owners to do this?

    Thank you so much

  13. I have almost completed the first draft of my memoir. A third of the ms concerns several people that abused and stole from my handicapped father. The story made state news and I have a few thousand pages of legal docs and newspapers to back up my story. Should I still change the names?
    thanks
    Scott

  14. Nanette says:

    I have been putting off the memoir I have be accruing since my childhood. I have always said I would write it when mom died and yet, I am beginning she will outlive me. Maybe Billy Joel was right, "Only the good die young." That was my brother’s (he died at 21) favorite song.

    The thing is even the sordid dysfunction I grew up in is seen through five different pairs of eyes (myself and my remaining siblings). A few deny what happened in our home. One has gone on to provide an even more hideous dysfunction in her own family. It is a story worth telling, but telling it will risk suits I am sure (we have all gone our own separate ways.

    What would a pseudonym do to my writing credits? Will it be as if I have never published (a book, I have numerous other publication credits)?

  15. Yes, you want to keep the events as true as possible, but you can change names (of people and places) to keep yourself out of the courtroom.

  16. Anonymous 2 says:

    But isn’t a memoir supposed to be about real, rather than fictitious, people? The idea, then, is to disguise the characters beyond recognition, but keep the events true?

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