Using real life public figures in a work of fiction???

Is an author restricted in any legal way from incorporating a living real life public figure (politician, celebrity, etc.) into a work of fiction? Does consent need to be given by the person in question?

Does the simple fact that the work is fictional, and will be marketed as fiction, make it O.K. in all cases? Or never O.K.?

Or would it be subjctive, like if it is reasonable to suggest that a some people may believe that the actions/attributes of the fictional version of the person may be applied to the real life version then it’s not O.K. (e.g. *When we walked into the drug dealer’s house we saw Robert Downey Jr. in the hot tub with three teenaged runaways . . . *)

But if it’s not reasonable to believe that the actions/attributes of the fictional version of the person may be applied to the real life version then it is O.K. (e.g. At the illegal cock-fighting arena we got into an argument with Jimmy Carter about a gambling debt, Carter broke a beer bottle across the edge of the table and stabbed Mike in the throat.)

Or might the scenario of subjectivity that I presented actually apply in reverse?

Well, for what it’s worth J.D. Salinger was used as a character in the book Shoeless Joe, later made into the movie Field of Dreams. (They changed him into a wholly fictional character—albeit one that that had a history similar to Salinger—for the movie.)

James Ellroy does this all the time, albeit with characters that are long dead, which makes me wonder if it’s impossible for the estate or family of the dead person to sue for slander/libel.
Off the top of my head I remember Howard Hughes, Danny Kaye, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Jack Ruby.

Passing reference to real public figures is ok. For example, any novel with events set in the year 1971 that happened to mention that Richard Nixon was the president of the United States at the time would obviously be ok. You would probably also be safe in attributing either trivial or obviously fictional circumstances to a public figure. There was that movie about the two young hippie girls who became involved in the Nixon white house for example.

You’re flirting with a libel suit if you attribute any unsavory behavior to a public figure, even fictionally. But there are broad protections for works that are obviously satirical, such as the aforementioned bar brawl with Jimmy Carter.

Finally, there have been recent attempts by celebrities to copywrite their public name, image and persona. Whether any of those have been upheld legally, I don’t know.

No, it’s not possible. Only a living person can sue for libel (written) or slander (spoken).

Names and titles cannot have copyright (the right to copy) under U.S. copyright law. A name or title can have a trademark or servicemark; e.g., Star Wars®, Billy Joel®, Chicago®.

I doubt a trademarked personal name would be enforceable if you used it in a book that refers to the person. Trademarks are only enforceable in their set area or particular type of item. For instance, there’s the Hershey Ice Cream Company, which has no connection to Hershey Chocolate. They sell ice cream, and Hershey Chocolate does not, so there’s no confict. The same with Apple Corp. and Apple Computer (though Apple Corp. took issue when Apple Computer when into the music area).

Also, a work of fiction has freedom of speech rights. If the mention isn’t libellous, it’d be hard to get a trademark violation if the name is mentioned in the book.

A living person can sue for libel. But libel only occurs when someone misrepresents facts, so it would be very difficult to win a libel suit against a novel. Further, if the person mentioned was a public figure, actual malice would have to be proven, a difficult thing to prove – you’d have to show the author knew the charges to be false, but published them anyway.

And there’s also the satire defense.

Essentially, you do not need to ask permission to use the name of a public figure in a novel. I doubt Robert Coover asked permission from Richard Nixon (who was alive at the time) when he wrote The Public Burning.

They’re NOT the same company???


Don’t they share a design scheme, the dark brown background, etc.? Or am I remembering some products of days gone by?