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Fact to Fiction
Posted: Fri Feb 06, 2015 4:52 pm
I am writing a fictional story set during the Second World War and am using a mixture of invented characters and some real-life people who actually existed. If I research some events from previously published biographies of these real people and wish to use certain anecdotes or events that did actually happen or words that they did actually say am I breaching the copyright of those original authors if I use snippets of information and some actual dialogue they have provided in their biographies? If they researched this real material for their books, am I then allowed to use it in a fictional context in my own story, so long as I don't simply cut and paste their paragraphs from their books into my own?
Posted: Fri Feb 06, 2015 5:54 pm
In theory as long as you are re-using factual information then there is no problem with what you propose, because facts and ideas cannot protected by copyright, just the expression of the ideas. For that reason you should avoid re-using another author's exact words, which are afterall their personal expression of the facts or events they are writing about. Be especially careful with dialogue or other reported speech. Often such dialogue may well be the author's impression of what might have been said, using artistic licence. However if you are able to verify the quotations from other reliable sources, then re-quoting the words verbatim may be less of a problem if they have taken on the characteristics of folklore or pseudo 'facts'. Just be careful about the amount you quote, because anything said and recorded in permanent form (say Churchill's speeches) will themselves probably still be in copyright. Thus it would be perfectly legitimate to quote from memoirs and other sources of that type, but only if the source is acknowledged. However this is difficult to do in the context of a fictional work, and so an alternative would be to seek permission from the publishers of the works, to use quotations without attribution.
For a classic example of the pitfalls of the problem of re-telling recent history in fictionalised way, consider the problem faced by the makers of the Martin Luther King film Selma
, who were forced to paraphrase all the great man's famous speeches (I have a dream etc) because they could not obtain permission from the Martin Luther King Estate to use the exact words.
Another classic example of this kind of dispute, but this time one that went to court, was the 2006 case Baigent v Random House
, often referred to as the Da Vinci Code case.