Using the real name of a person who died in a non-fiction account of survival

Question: I am writing a book about surviving in the North Atlantic after our boat capsized. The skipper of the boat drowned in dramatic circumstances that are central to the story. Is it legal for me to use his real name? Do I need permission from the family to do so? There may be some allusion in the book to negligence on his part, which put our lives in peril. Advice would be greatly appreciated.


Answer: As usual, I must point out that I'm not a lawyer and this is just my understanding. If you want dependable legal advice, you should probably consult an expert.

If this is to be a book of nonfiction, I believe you are bound by the same rules a journalist might be. As long as you do your homework, do not lie, and report the facts as best as they are known or you can discover them, you are free to exercise your right to free speech.

That's assuming that the captain in question is not a famous actor, writer, artist, or something similar, such that damage to his reputation might hurt his family's income.

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Aug 17, 2012
Re; Using the real name of a person who died in a non-fiction account of survival
by: Anonymous

Thank you for such a prompt reply. It is as I expected, but I needed a second opinion. I do plan to submit the manuscript to a publishing house, and I assume they would advise me if this were not the case. Is that a correct assumption?

The captain was not a public figure, just a local fisherman, but quite well loved in the community. The facts of the story as it happened are known firsthand only to me and my husband, who were the two survivors of the accident, so reporting them accurately will not be a problem. I will certainly do my homework on marine law, etc. before raising the issue of negligence. Thanks for the advice.

Also, even if I do have the right to free speech, I presume it would be proper etiquette for me to inform the family of my intent to use the drowned man's name?

Aug 18, 2012
Response
by: Glen

Publishers certainly don't want to publish anything that could be considered libelous. One hopes they would have legal experts who would watch for such things and give advice, but small publishers have fewer resources and may put the responsibility on the writer via the contract.

The family might be a good source of background information. You should consider interviewing them to get a well-rounded sense of the man. But I would be tight-lipped about how you intend to depict the skipper's actions.

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