Authors Alliance Releases New Legal Guide to Writing About Real People

Posted December 5, 2023

We are delighted to announce the publication of our brand new guide, the Authors Alliance Guide to Writing About Real People, a legal guide for authors writing nonfiction works about real people. The guide was written by students in two clinical teams at the UC Berkeley Samuelson Law and Public Policy Clinic—Lily Baggott, Jameson Davis, Tommy Ferdon, Alex Harvey, Emma Lee, and Daniel Todd—as well as clinical supervisors Jennifer Urban and Gabrielle Daley, along with Authors Alliance’s Senior Staff Attorney, Rachel Brooke. The guide was edited by Executive Director Dave Hansen and former Executive Director, Brianna Schofield. This long list of names is a testament to the fact that it took a village to create this guide, and we are so excited to finally share it with our members, allies, and any and all authors who need it. You can read and download our guide here

On Thursday, we are hosting a webinar about our guide, where Authors Alliance staff will share more about what went into producing it, those who partnered with us or supported the guide, and the particulars of the guide’s contents. Sign up here!

The Writing About Real People guide covers several different legal issues that can arise for authors writing about real people in nonfiction books like memoirs, biographies, and other narrative nonfiction projects. The issues it addresses are “causes of action” (or legal theories someone might sue under) based on state law. The requirements and considerations involved vary from state to state, so the guide highlights trends and commonalities among states. Throughout the guide, we emphasize that even though these causes of action might sound scary, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in most cases empowers authors to write freely about topics of their choosing. The causes of action in this guide are exceptions to that rule, and each of them is limited in their reach and scope by the First Amendment’s guarantees. 

False Statements and Portrayals

The first section in the Writing About Real People guide concerns false statements and portrayals. This encompasses two different causes of action: defamation and false light. 

You have probably heard of defamation: it’s one of the most common causes of action related to writing about a real person. Defamation occurs when someone makes a false statement about another person that injures that person’s reputation, when the statement is made with some degree of “fault.” The level of fault required turns on what kind of person the statement is made about. For public people—people with some renown or governmental authority—the speaker must exercise “actual malice,” or reckless disregard as to whether the statement is true. But for private people, a speaker must be negligent as to whether the statement was true, meaning that the speaker failed to take an ordinary amount of care in verifying the veracity of the statement. An author might expose themselves to defamation liability if they write something untrue about another person in their published work that is held up as factual, that statement injures a person’s reputation, and the author failed to take the requisite level of care to ensure that the statement was factual. 

False light is similar to defamation, and many states do not recognize false light since these causes of action are so similar. Where defamation concerns false statements represented as factual, false light concerns false portrayals. It can occur when a speaker creates a misleading impression about a subject, through implication or omission, by example. Like defamation, false light requires fault on the part of the speaker, and the public person/private person standards are the same as for defamation. 

Invasions of Privacy

The second section in the Writing About Real People guide concerns invasions of privacy, or violations of a person’s rights to privacy. This covers two related causes of action: intrusion on seclusion and public disclosure of private facts. 

Intrusion on seclusion occurs when someone intentionally intrudes on another’s private place or affairs in a way that is highly offensive—judged by the perspective of an ordinary, reasonable person. For authors, intrusion on seclusion can arise when an author uses research or information-gathering methods that are invasive. This could include things like entering someone’s home without permission or digging through personal information like health or banking records without permission. Intrusion on seclusion might be an issue for authors during the research and writing stages of their processes, not when the work is actually published, as is the case with other causes of action in this guide.

Public disclosure of private facts occurs when someone makes private facts about a person public, when that disclosure is highly offensive and made with some degree of fault, and when the information disclosed doesn’t relate to a matter of public concern. Essentially, public disclosure of private facts liability exists to address situations where a speaker shares highly private information about a person that the public has no interest in knowing about, and the subject suffers as a result. Like defamation and false light, the level of fault required for a speaker to be liable depends on whether the subject is a public or private person, and these levels are the same as for defamation (actual malice for public people, and negligence for private people). This means that authors have much more leeway to share private information about public people than private people. And the “public concern” piece provides even more protection for speech about public people. 

Right of Publicity and Identity Rights

The third section in the Writing About Real People Guide concerns the right of publicity and unauthorized use of identity. Violations of the right of publicity, or unauthorized uses of identity, can occur when someone uses another person’s identity in a way that is “exploitative” and derives a benefit from that use. Importantly for authors, this excludes merely writing about someone in a book, article, or other piece of writing. The right of publicity is mostly concerned with commercial uses, like using someone’s name or likeness to sell a product without permission, but it can also apply to non-commercial uses that are exploitative, like using someone’s identity to generate attention for a work. In most cases, the right of publicity involves uses of someone’s image or likeness rather than just evoking their identity in text, but this is not necessarily the case. This section might be informative for authors who want to use someone’s image on their book cover or evoke an identity in advertising, but most authors merely writing nonfiction text about a real person do not have to worry too much about the right of publicity. 

Practical Guidance

A final section in our guide covers practical guidance for authors on how to avoid legal liability for the causes of action discussed in the guide in ways that are simple to understand and implement. Using reliable research methods and sources, obtaining consent from subjects where that is practicable, and carefully documenting your research and sources can go a long way towards helping you avoid legal liability while still empowering you to write freely.