French author Gregoire Delacourt was surprised to find out that superstar and A-list actress Scarlett Johansson was suing his publisher, JC Lattes. The case is in France, which has different copyright laws than in the United States and also protects public figures in a much more aggressive way. Delacourt’s novel The First Thing We Look At has a character who is described to look exactly like Johansson. According to the Hollywood Reporter article, Johannsson is “…seeking compensation and damages from the ‘breach and fraudulent use of personal rights,’ as well as a ban on ‘future transfer of rights and adaptations of the book.’”

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Delacourt claims that the book represents “…’the fantasies of our times. All these famous people live with us…’,” and that his character isn’t really Johannson. While the lawsuit is in a different country, it does bring up the issue of what an author can or shouldn’t include in their written work?

Every writer should be very aware of copyright laws. Just because you might want to use something that is well known in order to help with setting or characterization doesn’t mean that you can without repercussions. There is a limit to things that are trademarked, and sometimes it could mean that something is off limits. Every writer should have The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know  as well as The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. But most writers should be careful in terms of real places, people, and things that they include in their books.

A celebrity is in the public eye, but that doesn’t mean that they’re in the public domain. It is not a good idea to use an identifiable likeness or imitation in a creative work due to the fact that, like Delacourt, you might find yourself being sued. Even if a celebrity has passed away, that doesn’t mean that they’re available to show up in your work. It would be better to make up a celebrity who can mimic all other celebrities in general, but not to be so specific as someone could identify themselves.

The same should go for places, although not as stringently. My rule of thumb is whether or not I am using the place for a reason or if I can base a fictional town on a real place. Again, if it’s identifiable and there are negative things involved, it could bring negative attention to the work. What about name brands or naming specific technology? What about songs? It can get overwhelming trying to figure out how to keep yourself legally safe while writing.

It is the author’s responsibility to research what can and cannot be used. While Delacourt may use the attention the lawsuit is bringing for PR to push the book, the financial cost as well as the cost to his reputation may be more expensive. At this point, he must be asking himself whether it was worth using real celebrities as character comparisons rather than creating his own celebrities to use for the same statement.

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