Libelous Liabilities

LiableI’ve just completed a new project and something’s been niggling at me. It’s set in The Hamptons, a well-known playground for the rich and famous. Specifically, the town of East Hampton, generally considered to be the “Best Hampton” (Sorry, Southampton) as opposed to where I used to live, Westhampton, described on the TV show, Royal Pains, as the “Worst Hampton.” Yes, we were a little hurt, but I couldn’t really argue with the logic. Geez, I already feel like I’m walking down a libelous road and I haven’t even gotten to my point yet.

Anyway, I’ve been to East Hampton many times and am somewhat familiar with the geography and businesses, but not to the extent that I am in Westhampton. And since my project falls into the erotic thriller genre I’m a tad worried that nobody in East Hampton might want to be associated with a book of this ilk. I do not paint anyone or any place in a bad light, I get that if you say something derogatory then you might be headed for some serious trouble. But I did place a BDSM club in it’s midst and I’m not sure I can do that without negative repurcussions.

The book is completed and edited, ready to make the rounds, except for this one bit that’s holding me back. So I decided to do a little research to see if I was walking down Lawsuit Lane. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. It’s best to avoid specifics. It makes sense to use made-up names for streets and businesses even if you want to use a real town. If you place a murder in a real person’s front yard, they might not be all that happy.
  2. Product placement. Probably best to avoid brand names like Pepsi, Kindle, or Starbucks unless you want to promote them. This could go either way, but if you trash them, expect trouble.
  3. Know your stuff. People maligned E. L. James for not being accurate in some of her details about Seattle’s geography. I cut her some slack, however, since she’s a Brit and I know virtually nothing about Seattle other then the excessive rainfall and the Space Needle.
  4. Get permission if using someone’s name. If not, change it up. If you want to use Bill O’Reilly you could change it to Will O’Beilly and everyone will know what you’re going for.
  5. A disclaimer is always a good idea. “This is a work of pure fiction and there is no intent to purposefully, or accidently, malign or misrepresent any person, place, or thing.” Or something like that…
  6. It could be good for business. I know for a fact that the town of Twin Forks experienced a major boon after the spectacular success of Twilight. However, if you make a location the topic of a mass school shooting, you might not get the same response.

That said, I stumbled on this story on a NaNoWrMo forum. Hard to believe.

Disney sued Santa Claus recently. A professional real-bearded Santa Claus took his family to Disneyland in the summer. He was not in costume or playing Santa, however, being a real-bearded Santa, he had a very long bleached and permed beard, and children started following him around the park, telling their parents “It’s Santa Claus! I want to give him my list. Can we get his autograph? Do you think he’s here with Jack Frost?” Well, as it turns out, Disney owns the copyright on Santa Claus…Seriously? Disney copyrighted Santa Claus? Who copyrights Santa Claus? Anyway the guy and his family were kicked out of the park for “dressing up as a Disney copyrighted character” while not being an employee of Disney.

She went on to say:

Both the Mormon Church and Disney have reputations for being very overly sensitive when it comes to anyone mentioning them in anything, and both hire massive teams of lawyers who do nothing but search every nook and cranny of the globe in search offenders to sue. Disney has a habit of suing everybody who does anything without getting permission in writing first. The Mormon Church is especially notorious for suing authors, editors, agents, movie producers, directors, script writers, and publishers – they sue hundreds of people a year, and they always win. Of course, you are also talking about businesses that have enough money to not flinch at hiring billion dollar lawyers, so no one ever wins against these guys.

Although I doubt anyone would argue against Disney being particularly litigious, one must be attentive to detail when it comes to copyright infringement. Remember when I said the Santa story was hard to believe? Well, I researched further and it appears to be more of an urban legend. By all accounts, Santa Clause is public domain, so use him at will. But this sheds more light on the fact that it’s difficult to sometimes know what is free to use and what’s not. Check out Robin’s post on Trademark Use for more detailed information.

I don’t think there are issues with famous places the likes of Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Letting your character sip a brand name wine in a swanky well-known restaurant says a lot about her without having to spell out all the details. Using real locations gives authenticity to a story and as long as you’re not using them in a negative context I think you’re safe. Of course, avoid copyrighted material like artwork, photographs, written works, especially song lyrics. But making your male lead a former Navy Seal, a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, or a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers is probably okay if you don’t make him a serial killer or pedophile.

I’m interested in all the help I can get in this regard. So, please, write me!


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

2 thoughts on “Libelous Liabilities”

  1. Well, that was a kind of scary post since the novel I’m working on now is set in an actual place, a very specific actual place. And it involves 1800s Mormons, in a subplot. I guess I better do some more research on this topic. Thanks for the good info.

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