What are the legalities of taking something currently in the news and writing a story/novel/movie (but not a documentary/biography) about it? Take Snowden, for example. Someone went and made a movie (I haven't seen it - apparently it's awful).

Do you need permission from the people involved or mentioned to write about them? Could you get into trouble for libel even if you make it very clear that you're writing fiction and insisting that any resemblance... is a coincidence?


3 Answers 3


I am not a lawyer, but...

Defamation requires 1. A defamatory statement 2. About a recognizable individual that is 3. published. Slander, the verbal equivalent of libel, also has requirement for actual damage to result, something you don't have to show for libel.

Starting at the beginning, what is a defamatory statement? This is basically anything that would tend tarnish the person's reputation and make it difficult for them to interact with others. Specifically, the sort of damages that the courts look for are the withdrawal or the withholding of opportunities the person would normally enjoy. Therefore, the slanderous statement is one that induces such withdrawal or withholding. It's no good to claim the statement was an opinion or even a quote from someone else, it's still defamatory for you to say.

Some statements, such as imputing criminal acts, infidelity, or loathsome disease to an individual are considered per se defamatory, that is defamatory without any other discussion. Other statements may only be considered defamatory given the circumstances of the statement. In your example, Snowden is accused of a crime, which is per se defamatory. Even assuming you're only using him as an example, I suspect the case you're talking about will still fall under the per se interpretation.

Which leads to the second element, who is a recognizable individual? This is the element TV always slips in the "Any resemblance between the events of this story and individuals alive or dead are entirely coincidental" line for. By explicitly stating the story is not about person X gives the author greater leeway when they later claim the story, well, is not about person X. This isn't a license to then actually make the story about person X, but it indicates a good faith effort to use the idea of the event and not the specific facts.

For example, it would be impossible to write about a black teen shot by a white neighborhood watchman at the moment without calling to mind the Zimmerman trial. But if you change key elements (make the teen younger or older, make the watchman female, set the events during a clear day instead of a rainy night, etc.), you break that automatic connection. It's still possible to imagine what might happen, just so long as you make it clear you aren't talking about what did happen. No amount of "This is fiction" labeling is going to let you say, "And then George Zimmerman did..."

The final element, publication, just means someone else heard (or read) your defamatory statement and understood it. There is debate in the courts as to whether that means they understood the statement or they understood the statement was defamatory. Either way, the whole purpose of a story or a novel is for other people to understand it, so it will likely be impossible to fight this element unless you write the story for yourself and then delete it without showing it to anyone.

If you are at all unsure about the law in your area, consult a lawyer before showing your writing to anyone.

  • It's important to note that to quality as defamation, the statement would also have to be false.
    – ale10ander
    May 31, 2018 at 22:56
  • 1
    Actually, no, defamation does not require the statement be false. As a plaintiff, I just have to demonstrate the elements referenced above. Truth can be put forward by the defendant as an affirmative defense (Affirmative defense = "Everything he just said is true but I'm still not liable because of x..."). This moves the burden of proof from the plaintiff (to show falsehood) to the defendant (to show truth).
    – Lazarus
    Aug 1, 2018 at 17:16

The movie "Primary Colors" was about a southern politician who ran successfully for President of the U.S, in the 1990s. As far as I know, there is only one person in the world who fits that bill (pun intended). But they used the name "Jack Stanton" instead the name of the real politician. And they changed his election year from 1996 to 1998 to create a fictitious "parallel universe."

That's the standard method of avoiding lawsuits with regard to a public figure. Even if you were really basically describing "Snowden," you might want to change his name to something like "Sonnenschein" so that you wouldn't have to worry about what's fact and what's not.For public figures, changing the name provides enough "deniability."


Here's a story of a ruling that could (inadvertently?) affect the use of actual people (or characters who merely resemble actual people):


  • Your link doesn't include the case name, which is always a red flag in any article about a legal case. The opinion is IN RE: NCAA STUDENT-ATHLETE NAME & LIKENESS LICENSING LITIGATION, the case is Keller v. EA out of the 9th circuit.
    – Lazarus
    Aug 6, 2013 at 19:32
  • This case has a fairly narrow ruling in that it involves taking a readily identifiable public figure and depicting them in the exact environment for which they are famous. For example, in Keller, a EA wrote a football video game that used the likeness, background, jersey number, etc. of a college football player. The court's ruling ensures that if someone is going to benefit from that likeness, it should be the player himself, not the third party EA.
    – Lazarus
    Aug 6, 2013 at 19:36
  • To avoid running afoul of this ruling, you only have to do one of two things. One, make the character inherently different from the real individual. For example, create a game player with Keller's stats, but a different background, appearance, and jersey. The second approach is to take a different but identifiable person and put them in a vastly different environment. So, football player number 9 from XYZ, Kansas, and how he reacted to the alien invasion.
    – Lazarus
    Aug 6, 2013 at 19:39

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