I am writing this piece so that those sharing their stories can do so in a throughout, safe and legal way. I am not a lawyer, nor have I had legal training, but after writing memoirs for many years, I know how important this step is prior to publishing.
When it comes to writing memoirs and autobiographies, potential writers are often worried about being sued.
They aren't worried for nothing!
Because while you are writing about the events of your life, whether it is your entire life or just one specific aspect of it, it inevitably requires writing about the lives of others. This is where it becomes difficult. Your view on another person, what they actually did, their choices and their behavior raise potentially significant legal risks that the writer must navigate if they want to avoid litigation.
There are two areas of law to be aware of when writing memoirs and autobiographies.
- Invasion of privacy
Do not let these legal terms scare you. With a little understanding and guidance, you can easily navigate these legal landmines and hopefully sidestep a lawsuit.
Before discussing these legal issues, two things are worth mentioning.
Write the truth first - edit later
- Write the first draft without worrying about any potential legal risks. Use people's real names. Do not change the facts or fictionalize any of the characters in the story. You can mold the manuscript in subsequent drafts to avoid any legal potholes by fictionalizing different characters and locations.
- Because you most certainly will write about family, lovers, friends, business partners, and other relationships, be aware of what you stand to lose by writing your story and by publishing it. Some things may need to be sacrificed to share your journey with the world, but you need to be clear about what the risks are and if you are ready to take them.
What is invasion of privacy?
People have the right to be left alone. Privacy is invaded when private facts not in the public’s interest are publicly disclosed.
Usually, invasion of privacy occurs when:
- Private facts that are not of public interest are disclosed
- There has been an intrusion into a person’s private life
- Someone is portrayed or misrepresented in a false light
In essence, the person you are writing about must have a reasonable expectation that the things that were disclosed were private and would remain private. Where an event happened in a public space there is not an expectation of privacy, but when something is shared in a private space, there may or may certainly be.
Memoirists in the past have been able to share their own private stories, and there is an understanding of how these connect with the private stories of others. But it is always important to remember that disclosure of facts about anyone else must be deemed to be in the public interest or may open you up to legal issues.
Little white lies or big fat law suits
There have been a number of memoirs that are less than truthful. It might be a single sensational story, or a large part of the book. While not only being a book in the wrong genre, it also opens up the possibility for being sued. This might be from the publisher for breach of warranty or from fans in a class action.
While most cases of fraud due to authors falsify accounts of their own lives are settled or withdrawn before ever making it to court, it is not an experience anyone wants.
Whatever the subject matter, writing about facts and events involving others brings with it legal risks that must be analyzed for legal issues and it is important to gain any necessary permissions from those who are involved in your story.
Once you have completed the first draft of your memoir, and important step to take is to have the manuscript vetted by a lawyer. This might be your publisher’s legal team or if you are self-publishing, a lawyer of your own choice. They can review your manuscript and identify any legal pitfalls and provide advise on how to reduce those risks, before publishing.
So what next?
If you are writing your memoir, Congratulations!
In order to protect yourself, your work and your message, do seek legal advice early on in your process.
It will allow you to publish your memoir with confidence.
Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. I am not a trained lawyer, and the above is information provided to assist beginning writers as they work through the writing process. I recommend all writers seek legal advice.