INDUSTRY KNOWHOW Copyright: Using real-life as inspiration

Have you ever based a character on someone in your local coffee shop? Or the lady who walks her dog down your street? Is it ok to take inspiration from real-life? Dr Miriam Johnson, Senior lecturer in publishing at Oxford Brookes University, take a closer look at what happens when art imitates life a bit too much.

We all have those people in our lives that we think would make excellent characters in a book, bits of them here, bits of them there, but if you find yourself writing a character that looks remarkably like someone you know if real life, be a bit careful – it could get you into bother.

Libel and Defamation

The UK has an interesting history of libel and defamation. We see it happen most often in magazines and newspapers among celebrity types who sue for damage to their reputation or livelihoods based on some written report (Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s relationship is quite the libel fodder). 

Up until the Defamation Act 2013, the UK was a hotspot for Libel Tourism where someone could bring a libel lawsuit in the UK even if neither the publisher, author nor plaintiff were based there. So if even a handful of copies of my book were sold in the UK, and if my publisher was American, and the subject of my book was from New Zealand, the lawsuit for libel could be brought in the UK. The Defamation Act of 2013 helped to put a stop to that by requiring a lawsuit brought in the UK to show that England was the best place for it.

The Red Hat Club

But protection under the Defamation Act of 2013 doesn’t protect you authors from getting away with turning someone in your life into a scandalous character (or even a normal one, really) in your book. Just look at the case of author Haywood Smith, who wrote The Red Hat Club back in 2003. Based in Georgia, USA, the book had a group of red-hat-wearing characters who looked an awful lot like the people the author knew. So much so, that one of her acquaintances in real life took offence at what she considered to be a libellous take on her life in the book. Smith used details from Vickie Stewart’s life, including amusing anecdotes about using ads in a newspaper to help track down her husband for divorce settlement money. While these stories may have been true, the character that looked a lot like Stewart also was written to have an alcohol problem and a propensity for sleeping around - things that Stewart took offense to. 

This led a judge to consider this take on her life to cause serious harm to her reputation. While it may seem odd that Stewart won the lawsuit even though she wasn’t named in the book, that doesn’t matter – would a ‘reasonable person’ make the connection? And by adding in additional nefarious (and false) attributes to the character, it caused harm to Stewart's reputation, and potentially her livelihood. Stewart was awarded damages in the case not only for defamation, but also for a variety of other things like emotional distress, etc.

But what’s interesting here is that the secondary publishers were also named in the lawsuit. Not just the author and publisher, but the ebook publisher, distributor – basically anyone who made the libellous material available.

So be careful out there when you think your eccentric neighbour would make excellent fodder for your new book, make sure you aren’t causing reputational harm, that what you’re saying isn’t derogatory, even if you don’t name them directly.

Main image by Rod Long on Unsplash

Living in London, Miriam is the Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Oxford Brookes, specialising in the MA in Publishing Media and the MA in Digital Publishing. Discover more about Miriam’s work and projects on her site and follow her at @MiriamJ801.


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