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Asked & Answered: How to avoid being sued when basing characters on real people

Q: My current screenwriting project is taken from the old adage to “write what you know”.  As such, it is a story from my perspective, working in a medical office.  Many of the characters are either an amalgamation of patients, or possesses the characteristics of a single patient, that I have encountered over the years.  The breathless doctor and his demanding wife are lifted from my perspective of the actual people as well. How much do I need to camouflage these characters in order to sell the project, make it commercially viable and not get my butt sued-off?

A: No matter how much “camouflage” you use, if the characters are recognizable as particular real people, you may be vulnerable to claims of defamation (libel), invasion of privacy, etc.  If, however, they're broad caricatures, amalgamations or ‘stereotypes',  and not obviously based on individual real people and events, then you're likely to prevail in such claims.    So, ask yourself whether your script is *really* a work of fiction, or not.  If the answer is yes…. then make sure there's no implication otherwise.  If it's non-fiction, then be absolutely certain that everything in the script is factually correct, and isn't revealing private, confidential information.

When you sell a screenplay, you're required to make “warranties and representations” that the work is original and doesn't infringe anybody's rights, invade privacy, etc.  So, your best bet, I'm afraid, is to hire a lawyer with experience in this area to discuss your specifics and to review the script and give you a legal opinion before you go too far down the road.    Be sure to remind your lawyer about your background and the situation, so he or she can negotiate the terms of the representations and warranties to protect you.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

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2 Responses to Asked & Answered: How to avoid being sued when basing characters on real people

  1. What is the story is based on true people of a bar setting? Would you still be liable for violating the people’s rights? What if the names are changed and the characters are based on the personalities of those people?

  2. The screenwriter still should consider the possible backlash to their medical career. Even if the film’s similarities to real life aren’t legally sufficient, patients may make the connection between the story, the author, and the medical office. If that happens, the screenwriter could risk damaging their reputation and their office’s business.

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