Writing a Celebrity in Your Book? Don’t Use Scarlett Johansson
Posted on June 10, 2013
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.'”
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.
Excellent points. I’m curious as to how the portrayal of the lookalike is carried out, because I’m thinking there’s probably a reason this set off klaxons with her people other than just an offhand reference.
Based on looking through other coverage, he didn’t just refer to her. He had his main character masquerade as her for a while because of her likeness. Also, he used some male celebrities by name as well, so this may just be the beginning.
He thinks because they’re in the public eye so much and that we regard them as much as we do, it makes it okay since in the long run, the character isn’t really Scarlett. Sounds like he really used their likeness and actual identity for a major part of the book.
Ouch, he should’ve known better there. I would think with the audience he was probably writing this for, they’d have gotten the point if he’d used a fictional celebrity (which could’ve made his point even sharper, because he could’ve played that angle up).
I have not read the book, so it’s hard to say for sure. But it does make me think since I was using some real places in one of my works in progress that making up places is a better idea than using real names if possible so as not to upset anybody. It’s a cautionary tale!
A suit is a bit excessive, but on the flip side permission isn’t that hard to ask for, or acquire.
In a situation like it sounds like for the book, I have to question whether or not he could have questioned the status of celebrity by creating his own celebs rather than using the likeness of real ones? I know that laws are different in France, but it’s a real issue for any writer when using real things in the writing, especially people.