Legal Advice on a Novel

I’m trying NaNoWriMo again, for what that’s worth. My concept involves the events of Revelations and some real life politicians. Question: To what extent is it kosher for me include public figures in a work of fiction? Could they sue for defamation, when the intent is clearly absurd parody?

It may not be as simple as the “fair use” a lot of youtube heads hang onto. Different forms of media have different laws governing them. Any lawyers know off the tops of your heads collective?


  1. chigau (違う) says

    Just change a couple of details.
    Mary Smith > Joe Miller
    Senator from North Dakota > someotherthing from South Dakota
    (plead confusion, if anylawyer asks)

  2. Glor says

    Also not a lawyer, especially not one from the US, but… you should probably be fine?
    They could sue for defamation (one can always sue… it’s not getting thrown out immediately that’s the test), but that’s unlikely, them not getting tossed even less so (public figure plus parody/satire).
    Making them unrecognizable or combining multiple real persons into a single fictional one should help, and my understanding is that the dead can’t sue you either.
    Fair use is a defense against copyright claims, so if anyone wanted to sue you over that it would come into play.

    My understanding is that most of this is state law in the US, however, so if you want to be sure you should ask a lawyer licensed to practice in WA.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Great American Satan:

    Read Hustler Magazine v Falwell.

    It’s practically impossible to be successfully sued for defamation in the US when the target of the supposed defamation is a public figure. Someone elected to statewide office or to a state legislature is probably a pretty safe bet for public figure status. Someone elected to federal office is definitely a public figure.

    HOWEVER, recently jurisdictions all over the world have decided that if something is published on the internet, that a writer anywhere in the world can be sued by someone living anywhere in the world so long as the reputational damage occurs wherever the suit was filed. Note that it doesn’t have to be **all** the reputational damage or even most or even even a plurality. They will be likely to calculate the money you owe based on how much damage was done within the court’s jurisdiction, but even if you’re in the US doing parody of a US political figure, if anyone ever reads your work in another jurisdiction, even once, there’s no complete guarantee that you can’t be sued by the US figure in a UK or Canadian or Thai or Saudi Arabian court for the amount of repetitional damage done in one of those other countries.

    The short answer is that if you use actual names and if your work makes it onto the internet, there simply are no guarantees, because you’re dealing with far more than just US law.

    Yes, that’s right. Other countries can take away the free speech rights of people in the US speaking in the US if they use a medium that doesn’t ONLY target people in the US. Even US citizens overseas (of which there are many) might be able to be used as a basis for an overseas defamation case against a US writer, writing in the US, about US politicians or public figures.

    It’s a complete clusterfuck. No one knows what to do with the internet yet, and there are no international treaties to limit courts from doing this kind of bullshit thing.

    On the other hand, even if you use a recognizable thread to communicate that a fictional character is noticeably inspired by a real life person (and that your attitudes/opinions about the fictional character probably, but don’t automatically, match your attitudes/opinions about the real life person), even outside the US it gets difficult for anyone to win a judgement for defamation.

    Further, there’s the issue of collecting. Just because someone wins a judgement against you in Canada doesn’t mean that you have any money within Canadian bank accounts that can be collected. As long as you are willing to forbid yourself from traveling to Canada ever again, and from buying stock in Canadian companies, and from keeping any money in Canadian accounts, it can be difficult for a victor to do much to hurt you.

    In really extreme cases, particularly where the suit is filed in a country that requires you to have a visa for entry, you could loudly and publicly announce something that would make you unwelcome in that country, get your visa denied, and then you’d at least have an argument that the court case should be dismissed because you aren’t allowed to defend yourself. Even better, if that other country had a treaty with the US that in some cases allowed them to collect debts by having the US government garnish accounts and turn over the money, you can actually go to a local court and explain that you weren’t allowed to enter the country to participate in the trial, and so long as you do have proof that you were actually denied (a letter denying a visa or the like) you can probably get an order suspending enforcement.

    Of course, whether you’re having a lawyer argue your appeal for being denied participation in the appellate courts of that other country or whether you’re arguing in the district courts of the US, either way you’re still going to need to pay a lawyer money (which you might not have).

    See! Justice! Fairness! Free Speech!

    Don’t you feel both better and less nauseated for having read all that? I know I certainly don’t.

  4. says

    Epic comment Crip Dyke. I’m still on the fence about doing it bc I’m such small potatoes I’d be unlikely to draw notice. But that’s some interesting knowledge to consider. Thanks for the input, everybody.

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