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In writing a review about the movie "Moneyball" some years ago, I noted that the name of Billy Beane's assistant had been changed to "Peter Brand."

The issue was that the movie was "based on a true story," but a few factual details had been exaggerated or "altered" for dramatic effect.

This caused Billy Beane's real assistant, Paul dePodesta, to withhold permission for the movie to use his name. Everyone familiar with the facts knows who he was, but changing his name "fictionalized" his role, or at least put people on notice that acts attributed to the "assistant" were at least partly fiction, and not necessarily his.

If the story had been pure "fiction" these actions probably wouldn't have been enough to stave off a libel suit, but apparently they were enough in this context. Why is that?

Was it because the story was basically "true enough" so that truth was an adequate defense? Or did the (slight) "alternation" of dePodesta's name and personally correspond closely with the level of alteration of the underlying facts? Or was it because the things that were alleged were not really defamatory?

(This reminds me of a case of a story where "Don Rather," a nationally known newscaster, announced the (fictitious) start of World War III. Apparently, the "alteration" of the name Dan Rather sufficed to show that it was the fictitious "newscaster" and not the real man, who made the fictitious announcement.)

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I'm no legal expert, so this is just my best guess:

In the case of a true story with a fictionalized character, the use of a fake name when everyone else is under their real name is enough to signal the distance between the real and fake person. In a story where everyone is under a fake name, however, the use of distinctive distinguishing traits might be enough to demonstrate that a real person is being referred to.

In the case of a slightly altered name, I'm assuming you would argue that the character was clearly intended as a parody, not an actual depiction.

  • I think you might be onto something. The "Moneyball" movie was a "barely altered" version of a true story, so the alteration of Paul dePodesta's name was enough protection in this context. In the Red Hat, the "backstory" was "barely altered" and that may have misled people in believing that the main story itself was "barely altered" when in fact, it was pure fiction. – Tom Au Mar 18 '15 at 14:20
  • Interestingly enough, in Almost Famous, his semi-autobiographical film, Cameron Crowe chose to give the character based on himself --the one person whose name he had a legal right to --a different name, while including characters based on several real people under their own names. Not everyone was happy about how they were depicted, but no one sued. – Chris Sunami Mar 18 '15 at 14:37

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