I was wondering if any legal experts can give me any advice about how much freedom a writer has to refer to real people and places in a fictional work and in what situations it's best to get permission or avoid it altogether.

I do know that the chances of these people/place representatives even reading the reference are very slim, but in theory, let's say you ended up writing a best-seller, what would happen in these situations:

  1. Can you reference the name of a real hotel in a novel such as the Plaza, NY. without asking for permission? Nothing negative is written about the hotel. We just know the scene takes place in front of it. Should you get permission to mention them first, or is it not necessary?

  2. People: I know you can mention a famous person in a novel, but what about if you added a negative spin to that person:

E.g. You're acting like Oprah Winfrey on crack.

He looks like Bruce Willis without the creepy stare.

She looks like a Rosie O'Donnell before she put on the pounds.

Could those people sue in theory if they thought you were depicting them negatively? I'm thinking in particular about the Winfrey on crack line? Are they fair game as being in the public eye?

  1. You can't put a fictional character like Chewbacca in your book obviously, but can you just reference such a character.

E.g. My ex-wife looks like Chewbacca after a good shave. Or how about: He did a Sherlock Holmes on the filing cabinet. Could the company that owns the rights to the Sherlock Holmes/Star Wars franchise have a problem with such a line or is that just extremely unrealistic?

I know that the chances of a book being successful enough for the parties in question to even know about the reference to them are very slim, but any feedback from anyone with knowledge of such matters would be greatly appreciated!

  • I have added a "right of publicity" tag which is a legal doctrine that refers to the rights of real people to control the use of their likeness, voice, etc., usually in commercial settings. In contrast, copyright governs the right to use portions of and works derived from someone else's copyrighted work, and trademarks involve rights to use images, words, or phrases (or sometimes other things) that have a "secondary meaning" that associates those things with some or all of someone's products or services, usually, for purposes such as marketing similar product or services.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 27 at 23:46
  • 1
    Note that the law on these topics is not the same worldwide. Different countries, and sometimes different regions within countries, have different laws, particularly regarding the right of publicity. It would help to know which jurisdictions are relevant to this question.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 27 at 23:49

1 Answer 1


Pretty much anyone can sue, at any time, for any thing. In some cases they win and in others they don't.

So when I am writing a book, the safest case is to avoid including real persons or businesses, and certainly avoid saying anything untruthful, trying to take advantage of publicity rights (e.g. naming my book after a celebrity or including a famous hotel name in the blurb on the back without permission), using trademarked terms, quoting copyrighted works, etc...

It gets safer as you get toward major political figures. For example, talking about Donald Trump's hair or Barack Obama's ears is not going to get you into trouble. Political speech lies at the core of protections on free speech.

And it is all fine with permission. If you are writing a self-help or business skills book, for example, you may find plenty of people who are happy to talk to you and give you permission.

If the question is only when do you win the lawsuit, then read up on defamation law, trademark law, copyright law, and publicity rights. But realistically, it's better to just avoid mentioning a real person or business.

I would also point out that unless you are amazing at writing in a particular style, there is a high probability that a fictional work will be more accessible and timeless if you describe events without extensive contemporary pop culture references. Look at your favorite books and see how often they are used.

If you ever get a contract with a major publishing house their legal department will review the book and decide what should be changed, etc... And if you ever self-publish you will be making a contract with Amazon, Lightning Source, Ingram, or others that you own or have permission to use all of the Intellectual Property.

Bottom line: writing most books is something writers do for fun. (Or to boost a resume or client confidence if it's a book in a field they work in.) We should enjoy the storytelling, but shy away from the legal stuff that adds risk, expense, or time unless there's profit potential.

  • Thanks very much Tom. I am asking because I've been trying to avoid most specific references to people and places but I've read a tonne of books lately that are peppered with pop culture references. I'm guessing naming models of cars, or makes of designer clothes is generally ok, right? Unless there is something disparaging. How about referencing fictional characters? I really want to reference Gordon Gecko and the Terminator, just in little comparison-type scenarios, but I'm reticent about doing it. Do you have any thoughts about that specifically?
    – MoniqueH
    Jan 29, 2016 at 7:30
  • Generally speaking, avoiding specific references to any person, think, or intellectual property you do not own or have permission to use is a good idea. For specific advice on whether a particular thing is okay without permission, you would need to get a copyright lawyer to provide you with their professional opinion given the facts of your case. What I provided here was a very general picture of some relevant law, not specific advice for what it is or is not okay to use.
    – Tom
    Jan 29, 2016 at 9:59
  • It is also worth noting that it's not just disparaging that is a problem--I identified several relevant areas of law off the top of my head: defamation law, trademark law, copyright law, and publicity rights. As an information-gathering step, it may be worth asking on one of the many author forums around the web for what people's practices and experiences are, rather than asking on a law forum. They may be wrong on the law but will be more likely to know common practice.
    – Tom
    Jan 29, 2016 at 10:01
  • Ok, thank you Tom. I think you're right. I feel a bit uneasy about including these references. I guess my book won't suffer too much without them!
    – MoniqueH
    Jan 29, 2016 at 19:19

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