I am writing a factual book, that will [hopefully] primarily detail real events that have happened in the past, that are related to the subject of the book.

The real events have all been reported in the media, but do not necessarily involve famous people or "public figures" but just "ordinary" people.

Does anyone know if I would need written permission from the people involved in the events? I would not be expressing my opinion or any other information that was not reported in the media, so I wouldn't think libel would be an issue. But of course I would like to use names and locations (of course not an address, just country/state) of the people involved.

  • 1
    Please look at other questions under the Legal tag, as your concerns may have already been addressed. Plus we are not lawyers here, copyright or otherwise. Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 19:38
  • Also, you need to specify the country you and the relevant people live in, because laws differ between countries.
    – user5645
    Commented Nov 7, 2013 at 22:14
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    I'd recommend you read the first answer here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/25363/… Then go talk to a lawyer, the last thing you want is to get sued after putting in all the work of writing a book. I would say though, if you go any deeper than just regurgitating what the news have said; if you try to tell their story, I'm pretty sure they have a right to get paid or at least to deny you if they want to.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 10:10
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    The existence of unauthorized biographies tells me that you certainly don't need the permission of a public figure to tell his/her story. The existence of libel lawsuits against unauthorized biographies tells me that one needs to be careful. The rules might be different for people who aren't public figures. However, obviously not everyone in the life of a public figure is himself a public figure, and you can't possibly write a bio without including friends, relatives, associates, enemies, etc. of the main person. So clearly you don't need people's permission to include them in a book.
    – dmm
    Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 16:45
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    There's a huge difference between "not get sued" and "not get sentenced". The law may be clearly on your side and you can still get sued. People will often use threat of lawsuit as a deterrent against writers/publishers of material they don't want published. That doesn't mean they can win these lawsuits, but that in order doesn't mean the lawsuits won't be lengthy or costly.
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 9:52

3 Answers 3


This has nothing to do with the law, but my own personal ethics. Understand that the two are in no way correlated, given that the law is often an arbitrary beast.

There is a saying--often attributed to Admiral Grace Hopper--that it is often better to ask forgiveness than permission. I don't believe in asking permission to do anything creative or productive (as opposed to destructive).

That said, I do find it better to inform people of what I am doing. It fills their need to have been asked permission (at least notionally), while maintaining my sovereignty. It gives them a chance to voice their displeasure, and I get to take that into account in my decision to proceed.

I have found people are usually much more receptive than I think they will be. People only tend to block things as a knee jerk reaction. Approaching them before hand prevents reactionary responses to last minute revelations.


From a legal standpoint, I'm pretty sure that so long as you don't introduce new information which is not necessarily true ("Unbeknownst to his family, Bob was a Satan worshipper who was responsible for the recent spate of sea otter murders in the area"), and specifically untrue in a way which could make it look like you have an ax to grind against a certain individual (i.e. nobody's going to care if you wrongly assert that someone's eyes are brown when in fact they're blue), you're probably in good shape. Outside of the UK, libel is exceedingly hard to prove, and in parts of the US as well as several other countries, if someone initiates a frivolous libel action against you, the judge can dismiss the case and require the plaintiff to pay all court costs.

From a "is this good writing" standpoint, I'm not so sure. Taking something that is "ripped from the headlines" is a nice start that lots and lots of writers do, but if you'll notice, you'll see that much of the time what these folks do is base their work on a true story rather than actually try to ground it in reality. There are a few really good reasons for this, libel being frankly way, way down the list. Reason #1: the difference between writing narrative fiction and writing journalism is that in the former you get to make stuff up. Primarily, you get to make up what people were thinking. In reality, you will never be able to get behind another person's eyes, not even if you're married to them for 50 years. In fiction, that person's in your head in the first place so you can do whatever you want.

Second, fiction is in many ways required to be more logical than real life. In real life, sometimes stuff just happens. You catch a cold and miss work the day an angry co-worker shoots up the workplace. You buy a rat from a big box pet store and it gives your child an extremely rare disease which he dies from. You, a woman who is named Svetlana who is a widow of a famous architect and who had a child also named Svetlana who died, seek out another woman named Svetlana to act as your foster daughter, and this new Svetlana turns out to be Josef Stalin's actual daughter. You put any of these events into fiction and people will say "okay, dude, put down the pipe and give me something real". People have a natural, perhaps instinctual reaction against weird things just happening for no apparent reason and while that may fly in real life because it's the truth, it's not necessarily going to fly in fiction.

Third, real life can be convenient and the great thing about making a story up in the first place - even one based on real events - is that when you run into a roadblock you can just make something up that will explain it. It may be that the person who you think killed the Black Dahlia or whoever had a perfectly good alibi the night of the murder. If you're only basing your book loosely on the story, you can do whatever you want to make that alibi hold true or not hold true. If you're trying to write journalism, then, well, even putting the libel angle aside, asserting that someone is lying without actually having proof is not good for your credibility.

  • I'm not entirely sure journalists can do anything to functionally harm their credibility anymore, short of getting caught committing some serious crimes against nature, and even then there are likely to be found plenty of examples to the contrary.
    – moron4hire
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 12:29
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    About the eye color: German chancellor Gerhard Schröder won a law suit against a news agency, forbidding the agency to publish the claim that he dies his hair. An appeal of the news agency in front of the German constitutional court was declined by this court. Germany is not the US, but this makes it clear that even minor details can cost you lots of money and nerves.
    – user5645
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 12:46

Most countries have laws that protect the privacy of their citizens. This includes the right to not have images or information about you published without your consent.

The only situation that allows private information or images to be published despite an individual's wishes to the contrary is if the public need-to-know is rated higher than the individual's wish for privacy. This is the case if the individual and his or her activities are of obvious public interest. For example, a politician meeting with economic leaders in private is newsworthy, because it is assumed that the meeting is not actually privated but relevant to his political activities.

What is considered to be of public interest differs from country to country, from court to court, and from individual to individual.

I would take the following steps:

  1. Research if there are similar cases and how they were recieved in the media.
  2. Consult a lawyer specialized in this area.
  3. Depending on what he recommends and what the story is, I would contact the concerned individuals (and organizations!) and ask for their consent.
  4. If the concerned individuals did not consent, I would again ask my lawyer.
  5. Only after all this would I start work on my book – or abandon it.

Personally, and from a moral standpoint, I would never write about an existing person without their consent unless I felt they had commited a crime and I perceived my publication as part of the fight against their criminal activities.

  • 1
    This is good advice, but I wonder if the fact that it has already been published changes anything. Invading someone's privacy is problematic; repeating what you saw in The New York Times (or The Podunk Gazette, whatever) seems different, and this is what the question posits. Could you address that angle? Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 15:54
  • Thank you for that reminder, @MonicaCellio. Well, (a) news articles have been the subject of successful court cases, so relying on the fact that something has been published as signifying that publishing it is legal, is definitely bad advice; (b) I would think that in a book I would expand greatly on what a news article reported and go far beyond it, adding unpublished details, so for everything beyond the bare reported facts I am the first publisher.
    – user5645
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:04
  • Thanks what -- that would be great stuff to add to your answer. Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:08

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