A local paper has been full of articles bragging about how an author was taken to task for writing about a local family, back in the ’50’s.
It’s well-known that the lawsuit for defamation was not started until the book — and the subsequent movie — began to make money. The publishers and a local paper settled out of court to get rid of a nuisance suite.
This has led to a local mythology that the writer was defeated for making fun of a local family. This myth might frighten local writers from using materials based on their own scene.
First of all, the Supreme Court has since backed the First Amendment by deciding that editorial cartoons, fictions, etc., come under “parody.” This is part of the right of free speech.
Unlike the time of the original case, and in direct reaction to this kind of lawsuit (and the actions of the House Unamerican Activities Committee), writer’s legal support groups now exist, including the Screen Actor’s Guild, the National Writer’s Union (AFL/CIO) and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
The New York Times found out what it was like to take on one of these organizations when it attempted to force an animation-industry style All Rights Contract upon freelance journalists, demanding the copyright of all articles from all authors. It lost to the National Writer’s Union in a case that went to the Supreme Court.
Fiction is not defamation. For example, recently someone went to one of my clients and attempted to make trouble for me with an organization I work with by partly quoting something I had said at an open arts meeting. First of all, I have the citizen right to make such a proclamation. As for the activity, involving literature that is written for full citizens and not children, I again have the right to be involved in that activity. No one has the right to get between me and a client in an attempt to infringe upon any part of my business or livlihood. The person who did it put themselves — and the client, who responded — into the position of being liable in a court.
I do not intend to follow up or begin such legal proceedings, even though I know very well how the local court system works. I think the people involved have realized that, in the case of property, if they did something like this to anyone else, and if they owned sufficient property, the deep-pockets syndrome might kick in. They have to understand that is always a danger.
Fiction, however, does not come under the defamation definition. The original author combined people, reworked situations, and generally did what a fiction author is supposed to do — rewrite from experience to express humor or tragedy or an overview of the human condition.
So the next time anyone starts bragging about winning court cases against authors for fiction, remind them that happened in the days of McCarthyism, and that it no longer applies.
That was then, this is now. And there’s more than one way for an author to get rich.