Using the actual names of people and places in memoir...

Question: I am writing a memoir of my years as a teacher. If I want to use real names, what is the protocol/requirement for getting permission? (Changing the names would probably be easier.)

The bigger question is can I use the real name of schools and city of location?

Answer: Please note I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. You may want to consult a lawyer at some point before publication.

That said, It's probably easier and safer to change the names of characters from the real people they were based on. In fact, it might be better to make your characters amalgams of several different people or change their physical appearance and other traits enough to make them unrecognizable by the people they are based on or people who know them.

You don't want the real people to object to how you portray them in the book, especially if they are not portrayed in a positive light.

Bear in mind that many people see themselves more positively than others do. Even if you think you've presented someone fairly, they may find a reason to object.

If someone can make a case that you are libelling them by...

a) Making the character so like them that other people will realize the character is based on them.
b) Portraying them in a way that damages their reputation and livelihood.

... then they may attempt to seek legal redress.

I'm not saying they will succeed, but it can be costly and emotionally taxing to deal with even frivolous lawsuits.

This is why so many novels have a disclaimer saying "Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental."

In the case of memoir, you are clearly basing your characters on real people, events, and places. So it's best to make
sure the characters are so different from their real-life counterparts that no one can make the connection.

Even still, you may opt for a disclaimer like, "The story in this book reflects the author's recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been re-created from memory."

As for cities... the names of cities are in public domain. Unless it's a small town and people in the town will recognize themselves if you give the actual name (and object) then you are probably safe naming the city.

As for the name of the school. If it's a generic name (e.g. named after a President, like many schools are) that's probably fine. If the actual name will let people identify exactly which school you are writing about, then you must be extra careful to make sure the characters are not recognizable. You may want to change the school's name.

As for getting permission... that is a way to protect yourself. However, if you tell someone they are going to be in your book, that can also lead to other problems. Are they going to want to influence how you portray them? Will they ask for a share of royalties? Will they tell their friends in advance and then get upset when they see how they have been portrayed?

The most difficult case might be an abusive ex-spouse. Everyone who knows you will know who that person is, and your portrayal of them may damage their life. If you're lucky, perhaps they will feel your past is water under the bridge... and be willing to give you written permission to write about them. If not, you may need to minimize their role in the book, change their name, and give very few identifying details.

Best of luck.

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