What Are The Rules (if any) When Writing About Real World Political Figures

by Todd Bergmann-Rogers
(Peoria, AZ)

Hello Glen!

It has been a good while since I have asked a question on the site!

I wanted to know if there were any hard and fast rules regarding including real life political figures like a President of The United States or other Head Of State in a fictional story set in the future?

Are there royalties to pay or do you have to get permission first....?

Your responses are, as always, highly anticipated.

Answer: I'm always a little uncomfortable with such questions, because I am not a lawyer and cannot give you a legal opinion. I can only tell you what I have come to understand from my own reading on the subject. If you are in the process of publishing a book, and there are some questionable legal issues, you or your publisher may want to consult a lawyer. But here goes...

A fictional Head of State in a story set in the future would be an entirely made-up character, no different from any other fictional character. So you have no need for concern here.

If you are resurrecting a real-life President (either current or past) and putting him into a story set in the future that's a little different.

You cannot libel a dead person. So a past President who is now deceased can be used in a story. However, if you are using the President's real name or otherwise making it obvious that the character is based on a real person, you have a moral obligation not to falsely depict the character or misrepresent his life, opinions, and actions. Especially, you should not tarnish his reputation with falsehoods in a way that damages the income of his heirs.

The fact that your story is set in the future helps you, because whatever the character does in that future is obviously fiction and even if he does something illegal or immoral in the story, no reasonable person would think the events actually happened.

On the other hand, if you were to have your President say that during his time in office a member of his family was (for example) embezzling the government, and that family member is still alive, that would be defamatory and the family member might have a case against you. Again, stick to the established facts regarding real people.

That said, Presidents and other public figures can be satirized freely, whether they are alive or dead. This falls under your right to free speech and is an essential component of a democratic society.

Regardless, you do not need to pay royalties. Getting permission is something you would do only if you had reason to think that parts of the story could be considered defamatory and you wanted to avoid potential trouble later on. But again, that's something you probably don't have to worry about until you're ready to publish.

For more information, here's an article written by a lawyer discussing this issue...


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