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Don’t Be That Guy

Here you are, again. And here I am, again. And here’s a timely thing. Teh Grauniad has more details here.

Suffice to say, Ms. Johansson won a French court case because a judge agreed that a French novel (not yet translated into English) contains a character who is often mistaken for her, and that the fictional character’s fictional affairs because it “fraudulently exploited her name, her image, and her celebrity.”

Uh, huh.

In short, I highly doubt this is going to make any difference to us here in the States (IANAL, and don’t play one on any media). I’m told it’s much harder to prove defamation in our courts (see all the suits brought against the various and sundry Puppy Kickers and their enormous payouts).

That said, outright using celebrities as characters in your stories is pretty much verboten. I wouldn’t do it, unless you’re bestest buds with a particular famous body and likely to stay that way. Now, personally, I would also recommend against using the explicit likeness of a celeb in your fiction, as well.

Except for inspiration. Look, here’s the thing, the problem with the French novel is the character is explicitly a celebrity look-alike, and one who has gotten attention for it. The trick here is, for us, don’t give your characters that context.

If you must have a character who you want to look just like Dwayne Johnson, or Sophia Loren, or the Duke, just describe them once, peg a physical characteristic you can touch on throughout the story, and let it go at that.

In science fiction and fantasy, you don’t have real celebs to worry about. Problem more or less solved. Sure, your urchin can bear a striking resemblance to the Court Sorcerer, or the Crown Princess, or the Space Despot’s missing younger brother, but who cares? All is fair in fiction. I anticipate you have a plan, and this is a case of clever foreshadowing. It *is* foreshadowing, isn’t it? Don’t make promises to your readers you aren’t going to keep, now (unless it’s actually a bait-and-switch, which could be borderline brilliant. Don’t worry: you don’t have to tell me which it is ahead of time. I do want to know, but I’m more than willing to wait until you publish).

Now, if you’re writing contemporary fiction of any stripe set in our world, and you have a celebrity as a character (or the aforementioned doppelganger) you’re going to have to deal with this. One simple option is to not make the portrayal in any way defamatory. The simplest way is to keep it a cameo. Let your Beautiful Person waltz into the scene, drop a comment or just a look, and waltz out: keep them part of the scenery.

Another way to do it is to prevent an explicit likeness. Give a physical description of your character, and have another character ask, “hey, are you…” Then have your look-alike respond with, “thank you! I’m not, but I get that all the time.”

Now, I suppose you could consult an attorney, but here’s applicable Fair Use information. Reading over that, I genuinely recommend against it. Just don’t open yourself up to that special hell.

9 Comments
  1. Uncle Lar #

    I find this rather interesting in that I’ve been paying attention recently to the industry and inventiveness of the Japanese as regards the development of sex robots.
    One of their companies has a robot with a face that bears a striking resemblance to Ms. Johansson, though they do not as far as I remember actually use her name, just her likeness.

    August 21, 2018
  2. I wonder how often ScarJo’s name is mentioned? Because a story about a lookalike seems like it wouldn’t be a problem, especially if the judge “dismissed a second claim that it fraudulently exploited her image, celebrity and name.” That’s some interesting reasoning.

    August 21, 2018
    • Draven #

      i think there’s features of the character that make it a reasonable match for her.

      August 21, 2018
  3. 23 skidoo

    August 21, 2018
  4. I seem to recall a suggestion about using fictional characters that probably applies here as well. What is it about [famous fictional character] that makes you want to use that particular character in your story? Fine. Have a different character with that trait. What is it about ScarJo that so appeals to you? Focus on that, then build a different character around that thing.

    I inadvertently did that a little too well in a short story I wrote to vent, and my readers each named a different faculty member as the inspiration for the annoying academic. Oops. Or brava.

    August 21, 2018
    • Mary #

      That’s something that improves with practice.

      Oddly enough, I was just digging up my prolonged rambles on the topic recently. They may be interesting to some.

      August 22, 2018
  5. snelson134 #

    “Now, I suppose you could consult an attorney, but here’s applicable Fair Use information. Reading over that, I genuinely recommend against it. Just don’t open yourself up to that special hell.”

    Remember, celebrities, corporations, etc. have lawyers on retainer looking for ways to justify their fees. Do you?

    There’s a filker named Tom Smith, who back in the late 90s early noughts wrote a number of parody tunes using well-known tunes from Disney films. When word of this got to the Mouse, Tom got a call, asking him to cease infringing on their copyright. He mentioned the Fair Use guidelines and a then recent Supreme Court decision upholding a similar parody.

    Their response: “It’s possible that you will meet that exception, so let’s take a trip through the court system to find out. We’ll file the lawsuit in Orlando Florida on Monday; you should be able to get a flight from Michigan to be there to answer it, right?”

    It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s how things actually work.

    August 22, 2018
  6. Aimee Morgan #

    It’s funny (not ha-ha, but eh? funny) to see how different authors handle using celebrities. In John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series, there are a fair number of celebrities used as characters that are “hidden” behind fake names, although it’s fairly obvious who he’s referencing, and with the exception of his very broad swipes at Zuckerberg and Bieber, the characterizations are all positive.

    August 22, 2018

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