Featuring real people in a fictional work – Entertainment Law Asked and Answered


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Can you mention famous people in your book, play or movie?

I'm Gordon Firemark, and this is Asked and Answered, where I answer entertainment law questions like this so you can take your career in entertainment to the next level.

Daniel writes in with this:

“I just completed writing my manuscript. In it, I make references to several famous college head football coaches, who are still living, and one NFL coach who is now deceased. The five collagen head coaches listed are in a recruiting trip trying to convince the nation’s top quarterback in high school football competition to play at their university. Is it permissible to use theses coach's names and give them a speaking role in the narrative? Also, am I allowed to make references to song titles and famous quotes, such as JFK's speech, (ask not what this country can do…), or a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte, and so on and so forth…. Thank you.”

So here we go.

This is a fairly complex question with lots of moving parts and variables. It involves several legal principles, but the Basic rule is that you don’t need permission to simply mention someone’s name (living or dead), as long as your discussion is TRUE., and isn't revealing any private information, and as long as it's not commercial, like attached to a sales pitch, advertisement, etc.

But if you’re including these people as **characters** in a work of **fiction**, you are by definition creating something that’s NOT true. It didn’t happen. So, it’s false. If it’s harmful to their reputation, or creates some implication that they endorse your book and its message, you could encounter trouble.

Song TITLES are generally OK, as long as you don’t say “song title was written by a child molester” or something… Thereby make a false, damaging statement about the songwriter.

Now, Quotes are very dependent on how much you take, from whom, and from how long ago.

For example:

Napoleon’s stuff is in the public domain. It's long enough ago that I feel very confident in that statement. JFK’s is in the public domain, if it was something he created while he held government office. But if it was something he wrote before he was elected, it's probably protected.

Most of Martin Luther King’s speeches, and writings, however, are still protected by Copyright, so they’re off-limits unless you get permission from the Trust that manages his estate. OR, of course, unless your use amounts to FAIR USE… But that's another video entirely… Look in the notes down below for a link.

OK, so your best bet, is to have a lawyer or a research firm carefully review and annotate your manuscript to identify any potential trouble spots.

Then, armed with their report, there are some judgment calls you’ll need to make about whether to keep things or discard them. A lawyer can certainly advice and counsel in this regard.

Thanks for a Great question, Daniel!

And if you have a question you'd like answered here… Submit it at https://firemark.com/questions.

See you next time.

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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.

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