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Defamation, Right of Publicity, and Celebrities Portrayed in Fiction

One question I keep getting asked – and I’m increasingly unsure of the answer – is why we don’t see more litigation or threats of litigation when popular fiction authors utilize fictional versions of real-life celebrities in their books. One example that springs to mind is “Old School” by Tobias Wolff in which the author creates a central role in the narrative for fictional versions of writers including Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. But I’m sure there are plenty of other examples. Even Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “The Hours” presents a fictional version of Virginia Woolf. There must be cases in which the subjects of these books – or their estates – could claim in either defamation or right of publicity and yet there is little litigation that seems to arise. When I read these books, I tend to look carefully at the front matter to see if it contains disclaimers or if permissions have been sought to use likenesses of real people, and often nothing is actually printed in the book to this effect, although that doesn’t mean the lawyers didn’t negotiate something up front. Does anyone know if that’s what usually happens or if publishing houses have their lawyers vet the content prior to publication to ensure that there aren’t grounds for any legal action either because the substance of the book isn’t defamatory or because the subject in question would not be entitled to bring a cause of action on jurisdictional or other grounds?