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The "Sound of Music" comes to mind. The Captain and Maria von Trapp were real people, although names and ages of the seven children were fictionalized in the movie.

One factor is that the von Trapps were public figures (they actually escaped from Austria so that Captain von Trapp, arguably the best Austrian submarine commander in World War I would not have to serve in the Nazi Kriegsmarine). And Maria published a family biography of "The von Trapp Family singers.

Given these facts, what kind of legal clearances/waivers did "Hollywood" have to get from the von Trapp family in order to produce "The Sound of Music"?

  • Quite a few useful hits here google.co.uk/… – CLockeWork Dec 29 '14 at 16:54
  • @CLockeWork: Great link. Exactly my problem, and exactly what I was after. – Tom Au Dec 29 '14 at 18:12
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Ultimately it comes down to the type of story that you are writing and how you go about writing it. For example, if you are writing a book based on a historical event, you can usually get by with just classifying it as a historical novel or historical fiction based on real events. Most readers will immediately recognize what this means and will not hold you accountable for a great deal of historical accuracy. The same could be said for stories based on individuals who were/are well know historical figures. By indicating that your story is historical fiction based on a specific individual, then the author is often granted a considerable amount of flexibility.

Another factor to take into consideration is the nature of the original story. If it is a pretty well known or well documented event (even if it's just locally), then you can generally get by with just stating that your story is based on actual events. The degree to which you can get away with that will depend on the people that you use in your story.

If your story focuses on a general event without detailing any specific individuals, then it's probably pretty fair game. However, if you are writing in detail about any specific individuals, then you will want to consider how those individuals will be portrayed in your story. If you will be painting them in a positive light, they probably won't mind, but if you are going to be portraying them in a negative light, then they may have some reservations.

Lastly, take into consideration how you will be promoting the finished work. If you are going to be using an individual's name or likeness as part of your promotional materials (i.e. - "Based on the true life events of Joe Somebody."), then you will definitely need to obtain permission for that.

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  • I think I know you from another site! I'm accepting this answer even though it's not quite the one I was looking for. It answers the question that was actually asked, and it is my fault for not asking the "right," or at least the "real" question, alluded to in my comment below the question iteself. – Tom Au Jan 4 '15 at 23:45
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Another reason is that sometimes the more unbelievable parts of the story are the ones that happened in real life. Take the film "Schindler's List" which is based on the real life Oskar Schindler. The villain of the film, Amon Goeth, who is also a real life character. One of the few complaints of the movie was that Goeth was a bit over the top, even for fictional portrayals of Nazis in modern media, but in actuallity, Goeth was toned down because the real life horrors he was committing were so unbelievable, the audiences would think they were over the top. Without going into too much details here Goeth holds a distinction for being fired by his superiors from his role as as a commander of a Nazi concentration camp for "mistreating the prisoners".

There are some things in fact that are crazier than the willing suspension of disbelief will allow in fiction.

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