Do You Need Permission to Write About Somebody?

 

Some of the most common questions I hear from picture book biography writers:

Q: Do I need permission to write a picture book biography about somebody, living or dead?

A: Permission is technically not required if the biography subject is a public figure unless their estate has created a kind of legal fortress. There are rare cases where permission must be obtained before sharing any likeness or representation. You should be able to identify these restrictions by searching online. The first place to start might be a website dedicated to the person, or the organization that controls their “papers of” or “official collection of.”

However, First Amendment rights aside, consider appropriateness. Personally, I would feel offended if a writer didn’t attempt to get my perspective or clarification of facts before writing a book about me. We writers should always consider courtesy along with pragmatism. Even with ultra-famous subjects, it’s usually worthwhile to attempt contact. If you can’t reach the subject herself, remember that relatives, neighbors, co-workers, or witnesses can be the next best thing.

Q: What is the definition of “public figure?”

I reached out to Jacqui Lipton, literary agent and author of LAW & AUTHORS: A LEGAL HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS, which is chock-full of information; copyright, contracts, rights, social media—and everything in between, packed into thirteen enlightening chapters. Two chapters are dedicated to the sensitive topic of writing about someone else and avoiding defamation. In an email exchange, Jacqui offered the simplest answer to the complicated “public figure” question:

A: “There are legal definitions of “public figure” in the defamation context but they’re very complicated and fact-specific–and courts vary from time to time and jurisdiction to jurisdiction–and it’s all very specific to the First Amendment calculus in relation to defamation law . . . the question of what constitutes a public figure will vary from case to case.”

Ultimately, it comes down to two words: It depends. Do your homework to uncover possible restrictions. If there is no legal barrier, you might be able to steam full speed ahead, assuming you determine that you are the right person to tell the story.

Q: Why should I try to contact my biography subject or their family if the person is/was famous and well-covered in other books, articles, etc.?

A: Quite simply, if you’re successful, you will get the most accurate information and most intimate perspective. Just as importantly, you might get a feel for the person’s personality and speech quirks that could influence your story’s voice and overall approach. On the topic of accuracy, errors might have been perpetuated through other sources, something I faced when researching The Great Blondin for KING OF THE TIGHTROPE. Because I reached out to Blondin’s great-great-grandson who eagerly collaborated with research, I was able to identify and avoid falsehoods that have been repeated countless times in books and articles since 1861. Not only did I correct the historical record, but Blondin’s family supported my book and provided information not accessible in any publication. I did everything I could to get the story right. And I made a new international friend in the process—someone still boosting the book.

A: Most biography subjects or descendants will be thrilled about your book and eager to provide you with information. In fact, they usually feel honored, especially when they find out you’re writing for kids. After all, the biographee did something notable, book-worthy, braggable, so they and/or their loved ones are usually grateful for the recognition. Such was the case with my forthcoming book WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Olympian Billy Mills. As we get closer to the publication date, I’ll share more about how direct communication with Billy turned into a joyous collaboration on this autobiographical picture book, being illustrated by S.D. Nelson. This is an example of polite persistence morphing into teamwork and friendship—necessary ingredients for this intimate and profound tale.

Q: What if I am unable to reach my biography subject or their close relatives?

A: If you do your due diligence and find no legal barriers preventing you from proceeding, you should be able to write about a public figure using primary and secondary sources available.

Q: Are there potential downsides to contacting my biography subject or their family?

A: Possibly

—A biographee or their descendant could explicitly ask you not to write the book, in which case you should probably NOT write the book unless you can change their mind.
—They could respond with a vague “no thank you,” leaving you to decipher the underlying message. This happened to me. After many unanswered follow-up emails, my agent and I decided it would be unwise to proceed with the book I was working on at the time.
—They could reveal that they are already working with somebody else on a book like yours. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also write a book about them, but the first author will have the authorized biography, which will almost certainly get the most attention. You must decide if it’s worth your time to write a book that will likely be overshadowed.
—They could agree to cooperate while assuming that they have creative control over the storytelling in your book.  This could be tricky. You must graciously set boundaries upfront.

Q: If my biography subject says no, can I write the book anyway?

A: Technically…yes. As I alluded to earlier, you might have the First Amendment on your side, but you need to decide if it is wise to go against the person’s specific wishes. Assume that everyone—from high-profile celebrities to unsung heroes—has a big platform or access to media machines. I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to legalities, but I can imagine nightmare scenarios in which the biographee or their relatives are angry enough to discredit an unauthorized book while throwing criticism at the author. Is that likely? Probably not, but I think it’s wise and just to air on the side of courtesy and respect.

Happy writing, friends!

A few additional sources about fair use and copyright:

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” by Jane Friedman https://www.janefriedman.com/sample-permission-letter/

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use” by Howard Zaharoff: https://www.morse.law/news/writers-guide-to-fair-use/

“Twelve Common Copyright Permission Myths” by Lloyd J. Jassin