Using a deceased person in a novel

by Julie Atwood
(Stockbidge, Vt. U.S.)

Question: I'm writing my first fiction novel, and I would like to know if it's okay to use a real person from the past who is deceased in a fiction novel. Is it legal?

Answer: As always, I have to state that I am not a lawyer and cannot give a definitive legal opinion.

However, my understanding from what I have read elsewhere is that deceased historical figures are fair game, especially if they have been dead a long time. You are always allowed to satirize political figures.

I'm sure you have seen plenty of novels, films, and television shows where famous people from history make appearances as characters.

The exception is that, if the deceased person has living relatives who continue to financially benefit from his/her reputation and you publish defamatory material, they may be within their rights to sue you for the damage done to their interests. For this reason, the longer someone has been dead, the more artistic freedom you have.

Of course, you also may have a moral obligation to be true to history and to make sure your portrayal of the person is grounded to a certain extent in facts, even if you speculate and extrapolate from those facts.

(Incidentally, there's no need to use the phrase "fiction novel." All novels are fiction by definition.)

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