23

Can someone take a story that happened to you, without your knowledge, and publish it? Using your name and specifics, and take the copyright for it?

A person, whose mother lived in our small town, heard a story about our father. This person wrote a children's book based on the story, using his name and other specifics to the story, and had it published with out our knowledge. She copyrighted the work. Is that legal? Do we have any rights to the story since it was about our father?

47

No one can copyright an event

The events that happened to your father don't belong to anyone. They just are. Different people will have different knowledge (or beliefs) about various portions of the events, but they are just different versions of something that happened.

Yes, the author who published the story can copyright the book. But she is copyrighting her rendition of the story, not the events. Your father has the right to tell the same story in his own words. As do you. As does anyone.

Any legal issues are not about copyright

Copyright is not important here. Nor is it really a problem that this author took a real life story and turned it into a book. But using your father's name without his permission is a concern. Since it's a children's book (and you didn't mention this as an issue), I presume that she did not say anything negative about him or violate his privacy or anything like that.

At the very least, it's obnoxious to write a story about someone without his knowledge. Let alone his permission. Or that of his estate, if he is no longer living. Is it illegal? Probably not. After all, newspapers don't need permission to write about someone, why should children's books authors?

Ethically, she should have spoken to your family before moving ahead. And the publisher should have contacted you as well. It's strange that they didn't (unless she self-published). But, again, probably not illegal, as long as she didn't say anything untrue.

Ask a lawyer

To find out your rights, you need to contact a lawyer who works in your jurisdiction. This means in the country this happened in, or in the US state if it happened in the US. Even if I were a lawyer myself (I'm not) who knows publishing law backwards and forward, the law where I live could be completely different from the law where you live. So get a local expert. In the US, it should cost no more than a couple hundred dollars for a serious consultation (a quick consultation may even be free).

  • 8
    In most jurisdictions, one doesn't "copyright" stuff: the stuff is (automatically) protected by copyright by virtue of it being an original work of authorship. Some jurisdictions enable one to register those automatically-created copyrights, but (like placing copyright notices on the work) this is usually an entirely optional step that merely makes enforcement of those rights easier. – eggyal Apr 26 at 8:19
  • 5
    Since it's a children's book I presume that she did not say anything negative about him — how does this follow? Surely children's books can have bad things and villains in them? – gerrit Apr 26 at 12:17
  • 1
    @JPhi1618 You can't sell your story. What you can charge for is exclusive access to the subject of the story. Or not so exclusive, depending on the terms of the contract. What you put in quotes is an expression, not a legal reality. If I "sell my story" it means I'm getting paid to sit down with the author and tell them stuff, answer their questions, etc. Same for people caught up in newsworthy tales who sit down for an interview. The story can be background for the author or it can be live TV (radio, etc). – Cyn Apr 26 at 15:07
  • 2
    @Cyn, Thanks for the explanation. I think that may be a point of confusion for a lot of people because the concept of "selling a story" for a movie or book is so prevalent. It makes it seem like just the story somehow has rights of its own. But I guess that's where "The unauthorized story of Mr Famous!" comes from. – JPhi1618 Apr 26 at 15:10
  • 3
    IANAL, but I think there are differences between ordinary people and "public figures". For instance, in some states actors have a right to publicity, and models have exclusive rights to images of themselves. – Barmar Apr 26 at 15:20
17

"Can someone take a story that happened to you, without your knowledge, and publish it?" Of course. Newspapers does this all the time. No one asks the president's permission before writing a news story about the latest bill he presented to Congress. Or on a more personal level, if Joe Blow is arrested, the newspapers don't ask his permission before writing a story about it.

Historians do this all the time. If a scholar is writing the history of, say, World War 2, he doesn't need to get permission from every soldier who was involved in the Normandy invasion before he's allowed to write about the Normandy invasion. Etc.

If someone writes things about you that aren't true and that make you look bad, you can sue them for libel. But in the U.S., truth is an absolute defense against libel. If what they wrote about you is true, they have every legal right to publish it.

It's possible that there are details of the case, or something in your local law, that would give you some legal right to prevent them from publishing. You could check with a lawyer. But frankly, I doubt you would have a case.

As Cyn says, nobody owns facts. Copyright law means that you own your expression of the facts, the words that you wrote or said or sang or whatever to describe the facts. But you don't own the facts.

14

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

You do have (limited) legal rights to your own name and story. In this case, if the author used your father's actual full legal name, and other identifiable details, and if your father is NOT a public figure, you might be able to make a case against her.

With that said, it may be in no way worth it, unless this book is a hit bestseller, or unless it has libelous statements damaging to your father's reputation.

https://stories.avvo.com/money/rights-life-story.html
https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/who-owns-the-rights-to-your-life-story
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/life-story-rights-whats-whats-103334

Note the following recent case, with some similarities, where a bestselling book and movie were involved. The lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality, so it's hard to know what would have happened if it had actually gone to court.

https://www.oregonlive.com/books/2011/08/handwritten_note_from_author_f.html

  • 5
    "unless it has libelous (sic.) statements damaging your father's reputation"—there's nothing in the question to suggest that the published facts are untrue, and truthful statements can never be libellous. Furthermore, one cannot libel the dead—so if the OP's father is deceased, there wouldn't be any recourse here. – eggyal Apr 26 at 8:25
10

If this happened in European Union

using his name and other specifics

without his permission may violate General Data Protection Regulation. Note, if your father died more than 10 years ago, it no longer applies.

Consult a lawyer if your father is alive or died less than 10 years ago.

As eggyal says:

Whereas newspapers and/or authors of academic works may be able to claim public interest as a basis for lawful processing, I doubt a children's book would meet that test. Furthermore, GDPR would apply if the controller (author) or any processor (includes not only the publisher but perhaps even retailers) of the data has some presence in the EU (or other place to which a Member State's law applies) that is connected to their activity with the book, regardless of where the actual data "processing" takes place.

But details will have to be dealt with by the qualified law professional anyway.

  • 2
    Excellent point. Whereas newspapers and/or authors of academic works may be able to claim public interest as a basis for lawful processing, I doubt a children's book would meet that test. Furthermore, GDPR would apply if the controller (author) or any processor (includes not only the publisher but perhaps even retailers) of the data has some presence in the EU (or other place to which a Member State's law applies) that is connected to their activity with the book, regardless of where the actual data "processing" takes place. – eggyal Apr 26 at 8:45
  • 2
    Note also that Article 85 provides for Member States to exempt/derogate certain parts of GDPR if they are necessary to reconcile the right to the protection of personal data with the freedom of expression and information (including in literary works). – eggyal Apr 26 at 8:56
  • 2
    @eggyal also, newspapers mostly use only the personal data person made publicly available by himself. When writing about people that are not public figures, they often use name only, and even then disclaimer like "some names have been changed" aren't uncommon. Freedom of expression and information are interesting points, but only qualified lawyer who will see this case can tell anything solid. – Mołot Apr 26 at 8:56
  • 2
    @eggyal I meant personal data. Even investigative reporters usually do not give home address of public figure, even if it is an address of, say, surprisingly expensive villa that was a gift from mafia ;) They say there is such villa etc, but not address. – Mołot Apr 26 at 9:55
  • 2
    @Molot: Ah, understood. But "personal data" under GDPR is defined as "any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person"—it's a lot wider in scope than just home addresses etc, and certainly covers the sorts of facts disclosed by investigative reporters. – eggyal Apr 26 at 9:58
7

Assuming you are in the US...

Copyright will likely protect this author's expression of the facts. This means that you cannot copy phrases from the book (for example), but you can write a different book about the same event. (This is true no matter whose father the book is about, actually.) Copyright.gov says:

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.

In other words, it doesn't seem to me like you have a case for a copyright angle were you to sue.

There may be other angles for you to pursue, but only a lawyer can tell you what those would be. There's just too little information to go on.

  • 2
    At this level, copyright is basically the same everywhere: copyright is about expression, not about the thing being expressed. There's no copyright case, here. – David Richerby Apr 26 at 11:43
4

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This common disclaimer exists for a reason.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_persons_fictitious_disclaimer

This is why I am not convinced that what the person did is legal... (especially if your dad isn't a public figure)

If you have any concern, you should consult a lawyer. But I think you have a legitimate case.

  • +1 for bringing up the naming issue – Bernat Apr 26 at 7:49
  • 5
    The disclaimer is placed to reduce the risk of someone claiming that the book says something that is untrue about them and that causes harm to their reputation (libel). It is certainly not a legal requirement for works to be imagined or fictitious. – eggyal Apr 26 at 8:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.