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Can I name names in a true-crime screenplay?

Can I name names in a true-crime screenplay?

In this video, Entertainment Lawyer Gordon Firemark answers a question about whether it's OK to name names of real people in a true-crime drama.

And…a small correction




Mary has some questions about her true-crime screenplay, and whether it's ok to name names. I'll give my answer… so stick around.

Hi, I'm Entertainment Lawyer Gordon Firemark, and this is Asked and Answered, where I answer common Entertainment Law Questions to help industry professionals like you, realize your dreams and achieve your goals.

Q: Mary writes:
I am in the process of writing a crime script about a famous Las Vegas casino magnate and his nemesis, a crime figure from the magnate's home town . The magnate still has a son working in his casino empire. The time period is late 1940's-early 1950's. My father was a lawyer for the nemesis, who had a “hit” contract out on him . All these men are long dead now. The material I am using is from newspapers and magazines-and some stuff from my mom, also gone, as my dad never “talked about” a client- but men always talk to their wives. Do you forsee any problem using their real names in this script? I want their stories told-they were really characters, bigger than life.

A: Well, true stories can be very compelling, but they can be a legal minefield.

First, when you're telling stories about real people, you have to be careful that you're being truthful. Making false statements about people that harm their reputation(s) is Defamation. Libel if it's recorded, published, etc., and Slander if it's merely spoken between individuals. It doesn't really matter whether the people you're talking about are living or dead. You still have to be truthful.

The best-practice when telling true-crime stories is to make sure that every factual statement is borne out by proof. Corroboration coming from multiple, independent sources should be used to footnote the facts contained in the script. News Media reports from the time period are usually reliable, but it's best if the facts were reported in several papers, etc. Interviews with the people involved or who investigated the cases are also great. Court records are among the best source material you can use. If a person was convicted of a crime, and you're telling the story of the commission of the crime, then as long as you're true to the trial transcript's telling of things, you should be OK. But, if all you've got to go on is stories from your now deceased parents, and you can't find other sources to corroborate, I'd stay clear.

And, just changing the names probably doesn't help. If people would recognize the person from the story, characteristics, etc., you could still face a lawsuit.

Bottom line. Make sure you can back up every incident or event that could be construed as damaging to someone's reputation with proof.

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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 viewers'’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

One Response to Can I name names in a true-crime screenplay?

  1. You do not have to be so careful in the UK where I understand it’s not possible to slander the dead. However, the rich and powerful are always trying to claim their own personal reputation is being damaged by unkind words about their relatives – tough! I don’t hold truck with that argument. Sometimes the only time evil persons can be exposed is posthumously. Here is some reading on the matter.

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