Do You Have the Right to Tell Your Story?

It seems so simple: Something interesting and noteworthy happens to you, you have gained wisdom and insights from it, and you decide to tell your story to the world. It’s your story, right? You’re allowed.

Well…sort of.

We all know that memoir can be sticky, with releases and the need to get those pesky facts in order. A lot of writers think that by simply calling a work “fiction,” those sticky points go away. Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s not necessarily the case.

I’ve gained some insights recently into the legalities of publishing. A client of mine wrote a book inspired by true-life events. This person had originally intended to call the work a memoir, but for several reasons, including plain ol’ good storytelling, the book was repurposed as a novel.

The book was bought by a publisher, and although it was still in the editing process, the writer began discussing the book’s forthcoming release. And although the book is now clearly a novel, one in which all names and characters are fictionalized, the main character bore a close resemblance to the writer’s life — too close for comfort for a couple people in the writer’s life. That was all it took to land this writer in some legal hot water. The work was rewritten and even further fictionalized, but it was an expensive lesson.

Bottom line, simply calling a book “fiction” doesn’t get you off the hook.

Under copyright law, the word published is defined as “the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to people or businesses for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication.

In other words, without even publishing a book, simply shopping your book around to publishers or announcing your intention to offer it up as a self-published work could be considered publishing, in which case anyone who is disgruntled about recognizing him or herself in your work could take legal action against you.

I’m not attorney. IN NO WAY am I offering you legal counsel. But I’ve seen what can happen when the i’s aren’t dotted and the t’s aren’t crossed. My recommendations are to get your releases signed, and be sure that you consult a legal expert before pursuing the publication of any work in which the story bears a resemblance to real life.