I have written a short story set in a museum in Ireland. It is a private museum that contains various displays and sculptures. I am happy with the story and would like to submit it to a few journals/comps, but I'm unsure how much "reality" I can include. Can I include the name of the museum and detailed descriptions of several of the sculptures? Can I include extracts from the placards next to the sculptures? Is that too far? And if so, can I include the names and descriptions of the sculptures, but rewrite the text on the placards? I've never written something set so intrinsically in a specific place (one of the sculptures seen by the protag has a profound effect on them), so this feels like a bit of a nightmare in trying to parse what I can/can't include. I have a feeling I should change the name of the museum, since it's a privately owned place, but then if I keep the same sculptures that feels rather pointless. Help!

  • Please include your jurisdiction and that of your publisher if you ask for legal advice. The law isn't the same everywhere.
    – Ben
    Jan 4 at 19:03

2 Answers 2


I'm not a lawyer and won't try to give you legal advice. But from a moral standpoint, here are a few things to consider:

In fiction, you can let anything happen at well-known public places like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty without hurting anyone. Does a murder happen in the Louvre in your story? Do terrorists have their lair under the Pentagon? Are the Pyramids destroyed by Aliens? Is there large scale money laundery involved in renovating the German train system? No one will care.

But if the place is private, like a small buisness or a private home, anything negative that you describe as happening at that place, might have a negative impact on the owners of that business or the people living there. What if you wrote that a murder happened at a certain address? Or the owners of a real business were involved with something illegal? Some readers might flock there just to see the real place, disrupting the lives of the residents. Others might think there was a kernel of truth to your tale and actually threaten or harm them.

Out of respect and to protect those that have nothing to do with your story, you should never, in my opinion, narrate anything, especially nothing negative, about identifyable private places or businesses (and private includes large transnational businesses).

Where your case falls on the continuum between large public and small private place, only you can decide.

Since the museum and the artworks in it probably aren't well known to your readers anyway, you might as well make up a museum and works of art for your story. A story about someone looking at the Mona Lisa might not have the same effect if you replaced that famous painting with a made up work by a made up artist, but a story about an obscure artist of only local relevancy can have any name for an international audience, because they won't know him or her anyway.


In fiction, the publisher carries the risk if the subject of a story objects to their characterization. It doesn't matter if the subject is specifically named or hidden behind a false name. Defamation is a question answered by a jury, if the matter proceeds to court.

As the author, if you aren't intentionally setting out to cause harm to an individual's or establishment's reputation, then there is not likely to be cause for concern. It doesn't matter if the subject is a Mom-and-Pop shop on the corner near your house or a mega-corporation.

Using the name of a business or museum that serves the public is perfectly fine. The same applies to naming and describing the pieces in the museum.

Exactly quoting the text from the descriptive text on placards might be going to far. On one hand, a short text that contains statements of facts isn't protected by copyright. On the other hand, the placards may possibly represent the work product of an expert summarizing a salient information. For instance, a placard reading "Water color by Gaugan, 1932" that would be fine. But a placard explaining the impact of Van Gogh's Sunflowers on sub-Saharan Africa might represent infringement, because it might be derived from a copyrighted source that the museum has every legal right to reference -- scholarship and criticism being two fair use exceptions to copyright.

Publishers have a good sense of where the line is and when to seek legal advice. Most likely its not a problem. If they want to publish the piece and see a potential problem, they'll ask you to change it.

Lastly, if you aren't deliberately maligning the establishment or the owner or seeking to harm their business or reputation, then there are no moral or ethical considerations. It's just a story.

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