Family permission


Feb 8, 2007
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I've written an alternate history novel about Thomas Andrews. A publisher is interested in it, but is asking about permission from the Andrews family. Does anyone know if this is needed? If it is, any ideas on how to go about asking them?

I'd especially love to hear from published fiction authors. Did you obtain permission before publishing?

Thanks all!
 

Allan Wolf

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Mar 11, 2007
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Hello, Marlene.
If by "alternate history" you mean "historical fiction" then you are not legally bound to get the family's permission. And any lack of clarity can be dealt with through a disclaimer at the front of the book. The Titanic and every passenger aboard her have become the domain of popular culture. And, by the way, congratulations.
 
Feb 8, 2007
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Thanks Allan. I know I've looked into this before, and the general consensus was what you said. But since a publisher is asking, it makes me wonder if I missed something.
 
Feb 8, 2007
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By the way, I call it "alternate history" because it's a time travel story, and I do change things, particularly about Thomas Andrews' life. I tried to keep the Titanic aspect as accurate as possible, while keeping to the plot.
 
Dec 8, 2000
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Fair enough Marlene, but I'm surprised at your publisher finding it necessary to ask given how standard disclaimers are for historical fiction based on or inspired by historical figures and events. Does your novel contain anything the publisher believes is particularly risible and could lead to legal problems for them?
 
Feb 8, 2007
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I think they're just concerned that the family has the final say in who can use their name or the relative's name. I've seen a phrase in a book contract that states the author promises there's nothing in the novel that interferes with anyone's right to privacy.

"Right to privacy" could be a legal catch-all for the family to sue if they felt the story maligned Thomas Andrews or their family in any way. But really, the story is very clearly fiction, and I guarantee that T.A. is treated with the utmost respect. The entire family is. Still, I can understand why a publisher would want to be careful.

But you're right. It seems that fiction, especially historical or alternate history, would just need the standard disclaimers. I'll sure be happy to get a definitive answer on this.
 
Dec 8, 2000
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Marlene, from the expanded information you've provided, it should be your publisher who can answer that question. Or at least their legal people, not you. The more information you provide, the more I'm concerned about the professionalism of the publisher you're working with as nothing you've posted about your novel is raising any alarm bells. I know laws vary from country to country, but everything you've described so far is fair, nothing out of the ordinary compared to other fictional treatments of historical characters and events, and would be covered by a standard disclaimer. It all seems a bit mountain/molehill.

Do you have an agent who can deal with the publisher and knock some sense into them, or find out what the real problem is? If you don't, are you a member of a professional association that can offer advice? Do you have an arts law centre that can offer advice? You may also like to see if you can get support from such a body to look over the publishing contract while you're at it.

Those suggestions are based on my own experience here, YMMV. Get the definitive answer from a legal professional, not random strangers on the internet.
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Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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>"Right to privacy" could be a legal catch-all for the family to sue if they felt the story maligned Thomas Andrews or their family in any way.

They would not win in the U.S., if you are publishing here.

Back in the 1970s GHOSTS ARE AMONG US cycle, the family of Captain Robert Loft, who was killed in the crash of Eastern flight 401, sued the author and publisher of GHOST OF FLIGHT 401, a tome which claimed that...among other things...Robert Loft was haunting first class on Eastern L-1011 planes. The book was filled with proveable untruths, but the family lost in court, because it was established that THE EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES OF CAPTAIN LOFT'S DEATH NEGATED NORMAL RIGHT TO PRIVACY LAWS. In short, "Had he been quietly run over in the parking lot, this book might warrant a right to privacy suit. BUT, since he died in the first-ever fatal jumbo jet crash, his death has endowed him, and YOU his family, with celebrity status."

Families and estates CAN, however, trademark a person. Were you to be writing about certain much-merchandised dead celebrities, you'd want to tread carefully AND submit your manuscript to their lawyers.

As has already been said, your publisher ought to have lawyers well versed in what you can, and cannot, do.
 

Allan Wolf

Member
Mar 11, 2007
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Asheville, NC
Not to belabor the subject, but Jim and Fiona are both correct. It seems odd that your publisher would expect you to figure out the legality of a book that THEY are publishing.

Almost all of the fictional books I've written contain characters who were real living people. But because their lives (and deaths) are public knowledge they are fair game. Only once did my publisher request that I change a name; when I was depicting a fellow who bullied me as a kid. He was neither famous nor in the public sphere at all, just a private citizen. On the other hand, my upcoming book, set aboard the Titanic, contains more than 50 of the Titanic's real passengers. The publisher, the editor, the copy editors, the designers, the marketing people--none of them have batted an eyelash.
 

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