Donna Janell Bowman

Do You Need Permission to Write About Somebody?

Posted January 28, 2022

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Some of the most common questions I hear from picture book biography writers:

Q: Do I need permission to write about somebody, living or dead?

A: Permission is technically not required if the biography subject is/was a public figure, unless their estate has created a kind of legal fortress. There are rare cases in which permission must be obtained before sharing any likeness or representation. You should be able to identify these restrictions by searching online. The first place to start might be a website dedicated to the person, or the organization that controls their “papers of” or “official collection of.”

First Amendment rights aside, consider appropriateness. Personally, I would feel offended if a writer didn’t attempt to get my perspective or clarification of facts before writing a book about me. We writers should always consider courtesy. Even with ultra-famous subjects, it’s usually worthwhile to attempt contact. Equally important is to consider the subject’s ethnicity, cultural or gender identity, otherly-abled status, etc. Writing about someone outside of one’s own experience is very often frowned upon.

Q: What is the definition of “public figure?”

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

A: “There are legal definitions of “public figure” in the defamation context but they’re very complicated and fact-specific–and courts vary from time to time and jurisdiction to jurisdiction–and it’s all very specific to the First Amendment calculus in relation to defamation law . . . the question of what constitutes a public figure will vary from case to case.”

Ultimately, it depends. Do your homework to uncover possible restrictions. If there is no legal barrier, you might be able to proceed full speed ahead, assuming you determine that you are the right person to tell the story.

Q: Why should I try to contact my biography subject or their family if the person is/was famous and well-covered in other books, articles, etc.?

A: Quite simply, if you’re successful, you will get the most accurate information and most intimate perspective. Just as importantly, you might get a feel for the person’s personality and speech quirks that could influence your story’s voice and overall approach. On the topic of accuracy, errors might have been perpetuated through other sources, something I faced when researching The Great Blondin for KING OF THE TIGHTROPE . Because I reached out to Blondin’s great-great-grandson, who eagerly dipped into family records to aid my research, I was able to identify and avoid falsehoods that have been repeated in countless books and articles since 1861. Not only did I correct the historical record, but Blondin’s family provided me information not found in any other publication. And I made a new international friend in the process—someone still boosting the book.

A: Most biography subjects or descendants will be thrilled about your book and eager to provide you with information. In fact, they usually feel honored, especially when they find out you’re writing for kids. Such was the case with my forthcoming book WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS , co-authored with Oglala Lakota Olympian Billy Mills, being illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Billy’s celebrity status meant that it took me a long time to finally gain access to him and his family. It was worth it! As we get closer to the publication date, I’ll share more about how direct communication with Billy turned into a joyous collaboration that morphed the project into an autobiographical picture book. As a non-Native writer, this collaboration with Billy was the absolute right decision. To do otherwise could have been viewed as a kind of appropriation.

For other examples of authors who successfully reached their celebrity subjects: Read about Kate Messner’s journey with Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor . Read about Cynthia Levinson’s journey with Hilary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can

Q: What if I am unable to reach my biography subject or their close relatives?

A: Sometimes, your intended subject, or their representative, doesn’t respond to polite requests for an interview or Q&A. Celebrities and high-profile individuals can be especially tricky to contact, though you should certainly make the effort. If you decide you are still the right person to write the story, seek out people who know/knew them: relatives, co-workers, neighbors, etc.. And search for quality primary and secondary sources that are exceptionally reliable. Documented interviews with your biography subject can reveal feelings, experiences, and direct quotes. At every step of the process, you should gut-check your decision. How will the biographee or their loved ones react to your unauthorized biography? The subject might be considered fair game, but make sure you are playing the game fairly.

Q: Are there potential downsides to contacting my biography subject or their family?

A: Possibly

—A biographee or their descendant could explicitly ask you not to write the book, in which case you should NOT write the book. —They could respond with a vague “no thank you,” leaving you to decipher the underlying message. This happened to me. After many unanswered follow-up emails to a potential subject, my agent and I decided it would be unwise to proceed with my project. —They could reveal that they are already working with somebody else on a book like yours. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also write a book about them, but the first author will have the authorized biography, which will almost certainly get the most attention. You must decide if it’s worth your time to write a book that will likely be overshadowed. —They could agree to cooperate while assuming that they have creative control over the storytelling in your book. This could be tricky. You must graciously discuss boundaries and expectations upfront.

Q: If my biography subject says no, can I write the book anyway? A: Technically…yes. As I alluded to earlier, you might have the First Amendment on your side, but you need to decide if it is wise to go against the person’s specific wishes. Assume that everyone has a big platform or access to media machines. I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to legalities, but I can imagine nightmare scenarios in which the biographee or their relatives are angry enough to discredit an unauthorized book and its author. Is that likely? Maybe not, but I think it’s wise and just to air on the side of courtesy and respect.

Writing about someone else can be a rewarding experience, but we writers should never forget that our subjects are/were real people. They deserve respect, on and off the page.

A few additional sources about fair use and copyright:

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” by Jane Friedman

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use” by Howard Zaharoff:

“Twelve Common Copyright Permission Myths” by Lloyd J. Jassin

4 Responses to “Do You Need Permission to Write About Somebody?”

Someone I no has taken it to far to write a srltory on my life and I infact can say stolen slot of thing aka phones laptops extra and even told my son’s dad she is related to get the info on my life I also am bullyed by this girl regards to both of us taking drugs she is waiting to gain moni to buy house she can cnot afford my life story would infact be interested to eny writer to sell how can I stop this and how can I prevent her selling as she has infact made my life hel to the point she has taken the time to follow me around to spike my drugs to Billy my I’ll sister my dad and nan she bring up to upset me this has been a big nastey experience can u help me on advice please as I would like to stop her publishing it.menny thanks Donna Lou Louise Cheadle Richardson

This sounds like a legal question. You might consider talking to a lawyer.

The story that I’d like to tell is someone from 57 years ago who had died since she was 18, I doubt that anyone of her family is still alive. Beside, I don’t remember any of their names at this point. They also lived in a different country – I immigrated into the U.S.A. 52 years ago. But I really want to write this story (it would be a short story of not more than 5,000 words). If I change the setting without compromising the real circumstances, would I be liable for defamation?

If you fictionalize it, as long as you are not defaming the person, it might be okay, but you should consider it carefully I recommend reading Law and Authors, by Jacci Lipton. Good luck!

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can you write a biography about someone without their permission

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How to Write a Biography

Learn how to write a biography with our comprehensive guide.

Farzana Zannat Mou

Last updated on Dec 8th, 2023

How to Write a Biography

When you click on affiliate links on and make a purchase, you won’t pay a penny more, but we’ll get a small commission—this helps us keep up with publishing valuable content on QuillMuse.  Read More .

Table of Contents

How to write a biography can be a fun challenge as you share someone’s life story with readers. You may need to write a biography for a class or decide to write a biography as a personal project. Once you’ve identified the subject of your biography, do your research to learn as much as you can about them. Then, immerse yourself in writing the biography and revising it until it’s best. What I am going to share with you in today’s post is how to write a biography. If you want to know the rules of how to write a biography correctly then this post of ours is essential for you. 


While it’s true that most biographies involve people in the public eye, sometimes the subject is less well-known. But most of the time, famous or not, the person we’re talking about has an incredible life. Although your students may have a basic understanding of How to write a biography, you should take some time before putting pen to paper to come up with a very clear definition of biography.

Before knowing how to write a biography, let’s first understand what a biography is. A biography is an account of a person’s life written by someone else. Although there is a genre called fictional biography, by definition biographies are mostly non-fiction. In general, biographies trace the subject’s life from early childhood to the present day or until death if the subject is deceased. 

Biography writing is not limited to describing the bare facts of a person’s life. Instead of just listing basic details about their upbringing, interests, education, work, relationships, and deaths, a well-written biography should also paint a picture of a person’s personality as well as that person’s life experiences.

Tips and Tricks For How To Write a Biography

1. ask the subject’s permission to write a biography.

Here are the first tips on how to write a biography. Before starting your research, make sure you get your subject’s consent to write their biography. Ask them if they’re ready to be the subject. Getting their permission will make writing a biography much easier and ensure that they are open to information about their lives.

If the theme does not allow you to write a bio, you can choose another theme. If you decide to publish a profile without the subject’s permission, you may be subject to legal action from the subject. 

If the topic no longer exists, you don’t need to ask permission to write about them. 

2. Research primary sources on the topic

Primary sources may include books, letters, photographs, diaries, newspaper clippings, magazines, Internet articles, magazines, videos, interviews, existing biographies, or autobiographies on the subject. Find these resources in your local library or online. Read as much as you can about the topic and highlight any important information you come across in your sources. 

You can create research questions to help you focus your research on this topic, such as: 

What do I find interesting about this topic? Why is this topic important to readers? 

3. Conduct interviews with subjects and their relatives

Interviewing people will turn your research into reality: the people you interview will be able to tell you stories you can’t find in history books. Interview the subject as well as people close to them, such as spouses, friends, business associates, family members, co-workers, and friends. Interview in person, over the phone, or via email.

For in-person interviews, record them with a voice recorder or voice recorder on your computer or phone. You may need to interview the subject and others multiple times to get the documents you need.

4. Visit places important to the topic

Whenever you want to know how to write a biography, to understand the history of the subject, spend time in places and areas that are significant to the subject. This may be the subject’s childhood home or neighborhood. You can also visit the subject’s workplace and regular meeting places. 

You may also want to visit areas where the subject made important decisions or breakthroughs in their life. Being physically present in the area can give you an idea of what your subjects may have felt and help you write about their experiences more effectively.

5. Research the time and place of the subject’s life

Contextualize your subject’s life by observing what’s going on around them. Consider the period in which they grew up as well as the history of the places they lived. Study the economics, politics, and culture of their time. See current events happening where they live or work.

When you studying how to write a biography, ask yourself about time and place: 

What were the social norms of this period? 

What happened economically and politically? 

How has the political and social environment influenced this topic?

6. Make a timeline of a person’s life

To help you organize your research, create a timeline of a person’s entire life, from birth. Draw a long line on a piece of paper and sketch out as many details about a person’s life as possible. Highlight important events or moments on the timeline. Include important dates, locations, and names. 

If you think about how to write a biography You can also include historical events or moments that affect the topic in the timeline. For example, a conflict or civil war may occur during a person’s lifetime and affect their life.

7. Focus on important events and milestones

Major events can include marriage, birth, or death during a person’s lifetime. They may also achieve milestones like their first successful business venture or their first civil rights march. Highlights key moments in a person’s life so readers clearly understand what’s important to that person and how they influence the world around them.

For example, you might focus on one person’s achievements in the civil rights movement. You could write an entire section about their contributions and participation in major civil rights marches in their hometowns.

8. Cite all sources used in  biography

Most biographies will include information from sources such as books, journal articles, magazines, and interviews. Remember to cite any sources that you directly quote or paraphrase. You can use citations, footnotes, or endnotes. If the biography is for a course, use MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations according to your instructor’s preference.

9. Reread the biography

Check the biography for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Circle all punctuation marks in the text to confirm they are correct. Read the text backward to check for spelling and grammar errors. 

Having a biography full of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can frustrate readers and lead to poor grades if you submit your work to the class.

10. Show your biography to others to get their feedback

It is a momentous step of how to write a biography. Once you have completed your draft biography, show it to your colleagues, friends, teachers, and mentors to get their feedback. Ask them if they have a good understanding of someone’s life and if the biography is easy to read. Be open to feedback so you can improve the biography and make it error-free. Revise profile based on feedback from others. Don’t be afraid to trim or edit your biography to suit your readers’ needs.

11. Use flashbacks

Flashbacks happen when you move from the present to the past. You can start with the present moment, and then bring in a scene from the person’s past. Or you could have one chapter focusing on the present and one focusing on the past, alternating as you go.

The flashback scene must be as detailed and realistic as the present-day scene. Use your research notes and interviews with subjects to better understand their past to reminisce. 

For example, you can move from a person’s death in the present to reminiscing about their favorite childhood memory.

12. Outline Your Story Chronologically 

This is another important step in how to write a biography is to write an outline that describes your story in chronological order. An outline is a tool that helps you visualize the structure and key elements of your story. This can help you organize your story into chapters and sections. 

You can write your plan in a digital document or draw it with pen and paper. Remember to store your outline in an easily accessible place so you can refer to it throughout the writing process.

What citation style should I use for my biography?

Use MLA, APA, or Chicago Style citations based on your instructor’s preference when citing sources in your biography.

Should I include personal opinions in a biography?

No, a biography should be objective and based on facts. Avoid injecting personal opinions or bias into the narrative.

What’s the difference between a biography and an autobiography?

A biography is written by someone else about a person’s life, while an autobiography is written by the subject themselves about their own life.

Can I write a biography about a living person?

Yes, you can write a biography about a living person with their consent. Ensure you respect their privacy and follow ethical guidelines when writing about them.


Other than creating a sense of closure, there are no set rules about how a biography ends. An author may want to summarize their main points about the subject of their biography. If the person is still alive, the author can inform the reader about their condition or circumstances. If the person has died, inheritance can be discussed. Authors can also remind readers how they can learn from the biographical subject. Sharing a closing quote or about a person can leave the audience with a point to consider or discuss in more detail.

For further insights into writing and to avoid common mistakes, check out our article on Most Common Mistakes in Writing . Additionally, explore the Best Writing Tools for Writers to enhance your writing skills and discover the tools that can assist you. If you’re looking to improve your typing speed and accuracy, our article on How to Type Faster with Accuracy offers valuable tips.

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How to Write a Biography

Last Updated: April 13, 2024 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Stephanie Wong Ken, MFA . Stephanie Wong Ken is a writer based in Canada. Stephanie's writing has appeared in Joyland, Catapult, Pithead Chapel, Cosmonaut's Avenue, and other publications. She holds an MFA in Fiction and Creative Writing from Portland State University. There are 7 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 1,854,194 times.

Writing a biography can be a fun challenge, where you are sharing the story of someone’s life with readers. You may need to write a biography for a class or decide to write one as a personal project. Once you have identified the subject of the biography, do your research so you know as much about them as possible. Then, dive into the writing of the biography and revising it until it is at its finest.

Researching Your Subject

Step 1 Ask the subject for permission to write the biography.

  • If the subject does not give you permission to write the biography, you may want to choose a different subject. If you decide to publish the biography without the subject’s permission, you may be susceptible to legal action by the subject.
  • If the subject is no longer alive, you obviously do not need to ask permission to write about them.

Step 2 Look for primary sources about the subject.

  • You may create research questions to help focus your research of the subject, such as, What do I find interesting about the subject? Why is this subject important to readers? What can I say that is new about the subject? What would I like to learn more about?

Step 3 Conduct interviews with the subject and those close to them.

  • For in person interviews, record them with a tape recorder or a voice recorder on your computer or phone.
  • You may need to interview the subject and others several times to get the material you need.

Step 4 Visit locations that are important to the subject.

  • You may also want to visit areas where the subject made a major decision or breakthrough in their life. Being physically in the area can give you a sense of how the subject might have felt and help you write their experiences more effectively.

Step 5 Study the time and place of the subject’s life.

  • When researching the time period ask yourself: What were the social norms of that time? What was going on economically and politically? How did the social and political climate affect the subject?

Step 6 Make a timeline...

  • You may also include historical events or moments that affected the subject on the timeline. For example, maybe there was a conflict or civil war that happened during the person’s life that affected their life.

Writing the Biography

Step 1 Go for a chronological structure.

  • You may end up focusing on particular areas of the person’s life. If you do this, work through a particular period in the person’s life chronologically.

Step 2 Create a thesis for the biography.

  • For example, you may have a thesis statement about focusing on how the person impacted the civil rights movement in America in the 1970s. You can then make sure all your content relates back to this thesis.

Step 3 Use flashbacks....

  • Flashbacks should feel as detailed and real as present day scenes. Use your research notes and interviews with the subject to get a good sense of their past for the flashbacks.
  • For example, you may jump from the person’s death in the present to a flashback to their favorite childhood memory.

Step 4 Focus on major events and milestones.

  • For example, you may focus on the person’s accomplishments in the civil rights movement. You may write a whole section about their contributions and participation in major civil rights marches in their hometown.

Step 5 Identify a major theme or pattern in the person’s life.

  • For example, you may notice that the person’s life is patterned with moments of adversity, where the person worked hard and fought against larger forces. You can then use the theme of overcoming adversity in the biography.

Step 6 Include your own opinions and thoughts about the person.

  • For example, you may note how you see parallels in the person’s life during the civil rights movement with your own interests in social justice. You may also commend the person for their hard work and positive impact on society.

Polishing the Biography

Step 1 Show the biography to others for feedback.

  • Revise the biography based on feedback from others. Do not be afraid to cut or edit down the biography to suit the needs of your readers.

Step 2 Proofread the biography.

  • Having a biography riddled with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can turn off your readers and result in a poor grade if you are handing in the text for a class.

Step 3 Cite all sources...

  • If the biography is for a class, use MLA , APA , or Chicago Style citations based on the preferences of your instructor.

Biography Help

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Community Q&A

Community Answer

  • Be careful when publishing private or embarrassing information, especially if the person is not a celebrity. You may violate their "Right of Privacy" or equivalent. Thanks Helpful 31 Not Helpful 5
  • Have the sources to back up your statements about the subject's life. Untruthful written statements can lead to litigation. If it is your opinion, be clear that it is such and not fact (although you can support your opinion with facts). Thanks Helpful 16 Not Helpful 15

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About This Article

Stephanie Wong Ken, MFA

Before you write a biography, gather as much information about the subject that you can from sources like newspaper articles, interviews, photos, existing biographies, and anything else you can find. Write the story of that person’s life, including as much supporting detail as you can, including information about the place and time where the person lived. Focus on major events and milestones in their life, including historical events, marriage, children, and events which would shape their path later in life. For tips from our reviewer on proofreading the biography and citing your sources, keep reading! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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8 Steps to Writing a Great Biography

Home » Blog » 8 Steps to Writing a Great Biography

can you write a biography about someone without their permission


People are naturally curious beings. And they love to read about the lives of others, and what makes them tick. It is for that very reason that biographies remain a very popular genre of nonfiction.

But what is it that makes the difference between a mediocre biography and a truly good one?

What is a biography?

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Before we dive too far into what makes a good biography, let’s first take a look at exactly what a biography is.

By definition, a biography is simply an account of someone’s life, written by someone else. Pretty easy, right?

Not so fast. Anyone can write a story about someone else’s life. But not just anyone can make it a story worth reading.

To start with the basics, any good biography should contain the following key elements:

  • A third-person account of the person’s life
  • Descriptions of the person’s life or significant events in their life
  • Factual (and not fabricated) information
  • Inclusion of historical information about the time period
  • Personal information that describes who the person is at the core, and why they are who they are

How to write a good biography

Now that we’ve established what a biography is, let’s discuss the eight steps to writing a great biography.

Step 1: Ask permission.

While it is technically true that anyone can write a biography about anyone else, if the subject is still living, it is always best to seek permission.

For starters, unless your information comes entirely from factual sources in the public domain, such as newspaper articles or other reputable books, you could face defamation and privacy lawsuits if the subject of the book feels that their privacy has been violated.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Even without the threat of lawsuits, though, it always helps to have input from the book’s subject. After all, they are the best experts on themselves!

In the case of subjects who are deceased, you do not have to seek permission, as the right to sue for defamation or invasion of privacy stops at the grave.

Be conscientious about what you write, though, as some states extend the right of privacy to family members of the deceased.

Besides, just as it’s helpful to get input from the subject themself, it can also be helpful to ask family for their support and input.

Regardless of who you are writing the biography about, be sure to research the laws in your state and, when in doubt, consult a lawyer.

Step 2: Collect the basic facts.

Before you can get started with writing your biography, you must first collect basic information about your subject. This should include things such as:

  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Names of parents
  • Names of siblings
  • Cultural background
  • Organizational or political involvement

Once you have all of the relevant basic information about your subject, you will know what areas you need to research further.

Step 3: Do research.

One of the most important steps to writing a good biography is to conduct quality research.

If possible, if the subject is still living, take the time to thoroughly interview your subject . Ask them questions about their childhood, significant events in their life, their career, and what they most value in life.

Once you have gotten a good feel for who your subject is and what makes them tick, solicit interviews from their relatives and friends.

While the first-person account is incredibly important, it’s also valuable to hear from people who know the subject and can speak about how the subject has influenced their lives.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Another great way to find information on your subject is to look into primary sources such as emails or letters they wrote, diary entries, and even social media accounts.

And if you’ve exhausted all of your primary sources, looking into secondary sources, such as newspaper articles written about them, can prove to be very helpful as well.

Step 4: Nail down your theme.

You’ve conducted your research and gathered all of the important information about your subject. The next big step is to nail down a theme for your biography.

The theme is the reoccurring idea or message that you want to get across to your readers.

For a biography, this could be anything from the important lessons that your subject learned throughout their time as the CEO of a company, or their transformation from rags to riches.

Nailing down the theme you wish to convey with your biography is a must, as it helps provide direction and a goal for your writing.

Step 5: Identify what makes the subject special or unique.

Everybody has something that makes them special and unique. And if you are going to the trouble to write a biography about a person, this is probably especially true.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

What kind of impact did they have on the lives of others? What kind of impact did they have on their community?

Don’t be afraid to include your own personal thoughts about what made your subject noteworthy. After all, biographies are not meant to be just a list of facts.

Step 6: Identify major “chapters” of the subject’s life.

Now that you have established what makes your subject special or unique, it’s time to figure out the contributing circumstances that helped shape who they are.

Did they lose a parent at an early age? Did they fight in a major war?

It’s no secret that who we are is a direct result of what we have lived through. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche so eloquently put it, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

So, find out where your subject’s strength came from. Research both personal events in their life and world events they lived though, and see how they were affected by those experiences.

Step 7: Make a chronological outline or timeline of the subject’s life.

Once you have determined exactly what you want to write about, it’s time to pinpoint what the true storylines for your biography are.

All of the facts about a person are part of their story. But not all facts are worth diving into and telling in depth.

Think about what kinds of things your readers will want to know.

What were the high points in your subject’s life? What were the low points?

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

What were the situations that presented a challenge that had to be overcome?

Keep in mind that even when the book you are writing is factual, your audience is still going to expect to be entertained. So, find those major moments that shaped your subject’s life, and then use them to form an outline for your biography.

Once you have done that, the outline can be used as the map that guides your writing.

Step 8: Start writing.

Now comes the fun part!

Actually, when it comes to biographies, the whole process can be a lot of fun. But putting all of your research and interviews together to write the story is especially rewarding.

As you start writing, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Keep your audience engaged. Paint a picture of who this person is (or was) and what makes them tick.
  • Try to include the “why” as much as possible. Facts are good, but facts can be boring. People want to know what motivated someone’s actions.
  • Provide background context. If the person you are writing about grew up in East Berlin during the Cold War, explain the political (and geographical) ramifications of that.
  • Be selective with what you include. Chances are, you have enough material to write several books about this person. But there is such a thing as too much. Think about the information you are including, and whether or not the reader will really find value in it. While it’s definitely impressive if you know what your subject had for breakfast on their 14 th birthday, unless it’s a critical part of the storyline, that’s probably best left on the cutting block.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you get to the point where the writing feels like too much to handle on your own, consider hiring a ghostwriter . A professional ghostwriter can help you get past those hurdles and take your biography to the finish line.

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can you write a biography about someone without their permission

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Blog • Perfecting your Craft

Posted on Jun 30, 2023

How to Write a Biography: A 7-Step Guide [+Template]

From time to time, nonfiction authors become so captivated by a particular figure from either the present or the past, that they feel compelled to write an entire book about their life. Whether casting them as heroes or villains, there is an interesting quality in their humanity that compels these authors to revisit their life paths and write their story.

However, portraying someone’s life on paper in a comprehensive and engaging way requires solid preparation. If you’re looking to write a biography yourself, in this post we’ll share a step-by-step blueprint that you can follow. 

How to write a biography: 

1. Seek permission when possible 

2. research your subject thoroughly, 3. do interviews and visit locations, 4. organize your findings, 5. identify a central thesis, 6. write it using narrative elements, 7. get feedback and polish the text.



Biography Outline Template

Craft a satisfying story arc for your biography with our free template.

While you technically don’t need permission to write about public figures (or deceased ones), that doesn't guarantee their legal team won't pursue legal action against you. Author Kitty Kelley was sued by Frank Sinatra before she even started to write His Way , a biography that paints Ol Blue Eyes in a controversial light. (Kelley ended up winning the lawsuit, however).  

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Whenever feasible, advise the subject’s representatives of your intentions. If all goes according to plan, you’ll get a green light to proceed, or potentially an offer to collaborate. It's a matter of common sense; if someone were to write a book about you, you would likely want to know about it well prior to publication. So, make a sincere effort to reach out to their PR staff to negotiate an agreement or at least a mutual understanding of the scope of your project. 

At the same time, make sure that you still retain editorial control over the project, and not end up writing a puff piece that treats its protagonist like a saint or hero. No biography can ever be entirely objective, but you should always strive for a portrayal that closely aligns with facts and reality.

If you can’t get an answer from your subject, or you’re asked not to proceed forward, you can still accept the potential repercussions and write an unauthorized biography . The “rebellious act” of publishing without consent indeed makes for great marketing, though it’ll likely bring more headaches with it too. 

✋ Please note that, like other nonfiction books, if you intend to release your biography with a publishing house , you can put together a book proposal to send to them before you even write the book. If they like it enough, they might pay you an advance to write it.  


Book Proposal Template

Craft a professional pitch for your nonfiction book with our handy template.

Once you’ve settled (or not) the permission part, it’s time to dive deep into your character’s story.  

Deep and thorough research skills are the cornerstone of every biographer worth their salt. To paint a vivid and accurate portrait of someone's life, you’ll have to gather qualitative information from a wide range of reliable sources. 

Start with the information already available, from books on your subject to archival documents, then collect new ones firsthand by interviewing people or traveling to locations. 

Browse the web and library archives

Illustration of a biographer going into research mode.

Put your researcher hat on and start consuming any piece on your subject you can find, from their Wikipedia page to news articles, interviews, TV and radio appearances, YouTube videos, podcasts, books, magazines, and any other media outlets they may have been featured in. 

Establish a system to orderly collect the information you find 一 even seemingly insignificant details can prove valuable during the writing process, so be sure to save them. 

Depending on their era, you may find most of the information readily available online, or you may need to search through university libraries for older references. 

Photo of Alexander Hamilton

For his landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow spent untold hours at Columbia University’s library , reading through the Hamilton family papers, visiting the New York Historical Society, as well as interviewing the archivist of the New York Stock Exchange, and so on. The research process took years, but it certainly paid off. Chernow discovered that Hamilton created the first five securities originally traded on Wall Street. This finding, among others, revealed his significant contributions to shaping the current American financial and political systems, a legacy previously often overshadowed by other founding fathers. Today Alexander Hamilton is one of the best-selling biographies of all time, and it has become a cultural phenomenon with its own dedicated musical. 

Besides reading documents about your subject, research can help you understand the world that your subject lived in. 

Try to understand their time and social environment

Many biographies show how their protagonists have had a profound impact on society through their philosophical, artistic, or scientific contributions. But at the same time, it’s worth it as a biographer to make an effort to understand how their societal and historical context influenced their life’s path and work.

An interesting example is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World . Finding himself limited by a lack of verified detail surrounding William Shakespeare's personal life, Greenblatt, instead, employs literary interpretation and imaginative reenactments to transport readers back to the Elizabethan era. The result is a vivid (though speculative) depiction of the playwright's life, enriching our understanding of his world.

Painting of William Shakespeare in colors

Many readers enjoy biographies that transport them to a time and place, so exploring a historical period through the lens of a character can be entertaining in its own right. The Diary of Samuel Pepys became a classic not because people were enthralled by his life as an administrator, but rather from his meticulous and vivid documentation of everyday existence during the Restoration period.

Once you’ve gotten your hands on as many secondary sources as you can find, you’ll want to go hunting for stories first-hand from people who are (or were) close to your subject.

With all the material you’ve been through, by now you should already have a pretty good picture of your protagonist. But you’ll surely have some curiosities and missing dots in their character arc to figure out, which you can only get by interviewing primary sources.

Interview friends and associates

This part is more relevant if your subject is contemporary, and you can actually meet up or call with relatives, friends, colleagues, business partners, neighbors, or any other person related to them. 

In writing the popular biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson interviewed more than one hundred people, including Jobs’s family, colleagues, former college mates, business rivals, and the man himself.

🔍 Read other biographies to get a sense of what makes a great one. Check out our list of the 30 best biographies of all time , or take our 30-second quiz below for tips on which one you should read next. 

Which biography should you read next?

Discover the perfect biography for you. Takes 30 seconds!

When you conduct your interviews, make sure to record them with high quality audio you can revisit later. Then use tools like or Descript to transcribe them 一 it’ll save you countless hours. 

You can approach the interview with a specific set of questions, or follow your curiosity blindly, trying to uncover revealing stories and anecdotes about your subject. Whatever your method, author and biography editor Tom Bromley suggests that every interviewer arrives prepared, "Show that you’ve done your work. This will help to put the interviewee at ease, and get their best answers.” 

Bromley also places emphasis on the order in which you conduct interviews. “You may want to interview different members of the family or friends first, to get their perspective on something, and then go directly to the main interviewee. You'll be able to use that knowledge to ask sharper, more specific questions.” 

Finally, consider how much time you have with each interviewee. If you only have a 30-minute phone call with an important person, make it count by asking directly the most pressing questions you have. And, if you find a reliable source who is also particularly willing to help, conduct several interviews and ask them, if appropriate, to write a foreword as part of the book’s front matter .

Sometimes an important part of the process is packing your bags, getting on a plane, and personally visiting significant places in your character’s journey.

Visit significant places in their life

A place, whether that’s a city, a rural house, or a bodhi tree, can carry a particular energy that you can only truly experience by being there. In putting the pieces together about someone’s life, it may be useful to go visit where they grew up, or where other significant events of their lives happened. It will be easier to imagine what they experienced, and better tell their story. 

In researching The Lost City of Z , author David Grann embarked on a trek through the Amazon, retracing the steps of British explorer Percy Fawcett. This led Grann to develop new theories about the circumstances surrounding the explorer's disappearance.

Still from the movie The Lost City of Z in which the explorer is surrounded by an Amazon native tribe

Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with jaguars and anacondas to better understand your subject’s environment, but try to walk into their shoes as much as possible. 

Once you’ve researched your character enough, it’s time to put together all the puzzle pieces you collected so far. 

Take the bulk of notes, media, and other documents you’ve collected, and start to give them some order and structure. A simple way to do this is by creating a timeline. 

Create a chronological timeline

It helps to organize your notes chronologically 一 from childhood to the senior years, line up the most significant events of your subject’s life, including dates, places, names and other relevant bits. 

Timeline of Steve Jobs' career

You should be able to divide their life into distinct periods, each with their unique events and significance. Based on that, you can start drafting an outline of the narrative you want to create.  

Draft a story outline 

Since a biography entails writing about a person’s entire life, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can pick where you want to end the story, depending on how consequential the last years of your subject were. But the nature of the work will give you a starting character arc to work with. 

To outline the story then, you could turn to the popular Three-Act Structure , which divides the narrative in three main parts. In a nutshell, you’ll want to make sure to have the following:

  • Act 1. Setup : Introduce the protagonist's background and the turning points that set them on a path to achieve a goal. 
  • Act 2. Confrontation : Describe the challenges they encounter, both internal and external, and how they rise to them. Then..
  • Act 3. Resolution : Reach a climactic point in their story in which they succeed (or fail), showing how they (and the world around them) have changed as a result. 

Only one question remains before you begin writing: what will be the main focus of your biography?

Think about why you’re so drawn to your subject to dedicate years of your life to recounting their own. What aspect of their life do you want to highlight? Is it their evil nature, artistic genius, or visionary mindset? And what evidence have you got to back that up? Find a central thesis or focus to weave as the main thread throughout your narrative. 

Cover of Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Or find a unique angle

If you don’t have a particular theme to explore, finding a distinct angle on your subject’s story can also help you distinguish your work from other biographies or existing works on the same subject.

Plenty of biographies have been published about The Beatles 一 many of which have different focuses and approaches: 

  • Philip Norman's Shout is sometimes regarded as leaning more towards a pro-Lennon and anti-McCartney stance, offering insights into the band's inner dynamics. 
  • Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head closely examines their music track by track, shifting the focus back to McCartney as a primary creative force. 
  • Craig Brown's One Two Three Four aims to capture their story through anecdotes, fan letters, diary entries, and interviews. 
  • Mark Lewisohn's monumental three-volume biography, Tune In , stands as a testament to over a decade of meticulous research, chronicling every intricate detail of the Beatles' journey.

Group picture of The Beatles

Finally, consider that biographies are often more than recounting the life of a person. Similar to how Dickens’ Great Expectations is not solely about a boy named Pip (but an examination and critique of Britain’s fickle, unforgiving class system), a biography should strive to illuminate a broader truth — be it social, political, or human — beyond the immediate subject of the book. 

Once you’ve identified your main focus or angle, it’s time to write a great story. 

Illustration of a writer mixing storytelling ingredients

While biographies are often highly informative, they do not have to be dry and purely expository in nature . You can play with storytelling elements to make it an engaging read. 

You could do that by thoroughly detailing the setting of the story , depicting the people involved in the story as fully-fledged characters , or using rising action and building to a climax when describing a particularly significant milestone of the subject’s life. 

One common way to make a biography interesting to read is starting on a strong foot…

Hook the reader from the start

Just because you're honoring your character's whole life doesn't mean you have to begin when they said their first word. Starting from the middle or end of their life can be more captivating as it introduces conflicts and stakes that shaped their journey.

When he wrote about Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild , author Jon Krakauer didn’t open his subject’s childhood and abusive family environment. Instead, the book begins with McCandless hitchhiking his way into the wilderness, and subsequently being discovered dead in an abandoned bus. By starting in medias res , Krakauer hooks the reader’s interest, before tracing back the causes and motivations that led McCandless to die alone in that bus in the first place.

Chris McCandless self-portrait in front of the now iconic bus

You can bend the timeline to improve the reader’s reading experience throughout the rest of the story too…

Play with flashback 

While biographies tend to follow a chronological narrative, you can use flashbacks to tell brief stories or anecdotes when appropriate. For example, if you were telling the story of footballer Lionel Messi, before the climax of winning the World Cup with Argentina, you could recall when he was just 13 years old, giving an interview to a local newspaper, expressing his lifelong dream of playing for the national team. 

Used sparsely and intentionally, flashbacks can add more context to the story and keep the narrative interesting. Just like including dialogue does…

Reimagine conversations

Recreating conversations that your subject had with people around them is another effective way to color the story. Dialogue helps the reader imagine the story like a movie, providing a deeper sensory experience. 

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

One thing is trying to articulate the root of Steve Jobs’ obsession with product design, another would be to quote his father , teaching him how to build a fence when he was young: “You've got to make the back of the fence just as good looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know. And that will show that you're dedicated to making something perfect.”

Unlike memoirs and autobiographies, in which the author tells the story from their personal viewpoint and enjoys greater freedom to recall conversations, biographies require a commitment to facts. So, when recreating dialogue, try to quote directly from reliable sources like personal diaries, emails, and text messages. You could also use your interview scripts as an alternative to dialogue. As Tom Bromley suggests, “If you talk with a good amount of people, you can try to tell the story from their perspective, interweaving different segments and quoting the interviewees directly.”



How to Write Believable Dialogue

Master the art of dialogue in 10 five-minute lessons.

These are just some of the story elements you can use to make your biography more compelling. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, it’s a good idea to ask for feedback. 

If you’re going to self-publish your biography, you’ll have to polish it to professional standards. After leaving your work to rest for a while, look at it with fresh eyes and self-edit your manuscript eliminating passive voice, filler words, and redundant adverbs. 

Illustration of an editor reviewing a manuscript

Then, have a professional editor give you a general assessment. They’ll look at the structure and shape of your manuscript and tell you which parts need to be expanded on or cut. As someone who edited and commissioned several biographies, Tom Bromley points out that a professional “will look at the sources used and assess whether they back up the points made, or if more are needed. They would also look for context, and whether or not more background information is needed for the reader to understand the story fully. And they might check your facts, too.”  

In addition to structural editing, you may want to have someone copy-edit and proofread your work.



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Importantly, make sure to include a bibliography with a list of all the interviews, documents, and sources used in the writing process. You’ll have to compile it according to a manual of style, but you can easily create one by using tools like EasyBib . Once the text is nicely polished and typeset in your writing software , you can prepare for the publication process.  

In conclusion, by mixing storytelling elements with diligent research, you’ll be able to breathe life into a powerful biography that immerses readers in another individual’s life experience. Whether that’ll spark inspiration or controversy, remember you could have an important role in shaping their legacy 一 and that’s something not to take lightly. 

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Selfpublished Whiz

Can You Write a Book About Someone without Their Permission?

It can be tempting to use movies, places, real people, celebrities, and more to build an engaging and believable world for your readers. But, are real-world details, such as a celebrity, acceptable?

When using real people in their writing, writers are at risk of misappropriation of publicity rights, invasion of privacy, and defamation. Despite this, fiction writers use real people as inspiration for their characters all the time.

Nonfiction and memoir writers use real names in their books . Does this mean that all these writers risk a lawsuit? 

Is it at all safe to write about someone without their permission?  When is it appropriate vs an invasion of privacy? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and so much more! 

Can You Write A Book About Someone Without Their Permission?

Can You Write a Book About Someone Without Their Permission?

Can you use celebrities as book characters , can you name a character after a celebrity, my book contains a real person, can i use their name, what is an invasion of privacy claims, what is considered as defamation or libel, top tips to employ to minimize your legal risks when writing about real people.

As a rule of thumb, always remember that it’s highly unlikely for you to run into privacy or defamation issues if you portray someone in a neutral or positive light.

So, you are free to mention someone without their permission in the acknowledgments or dedication sections of your book. In non-fiction books, you can refer to actual people and events as long as you have the references available to prove the information included was factual.

This last bit is vital as defamation and privacy risks will need to be assessed whenever you opt to write anything about identifiable, living people that could seriously damage their reputation.

Now, I’m not suggesting you paint your mother-in-law like a queen bee if she’s not, but before you go painting her as a drug dealer I would be sure that all your facts and evidence of such are accurate and apparent.

Can You Use Celebrities As Book Characters? 

Some stories may benefit greatly from featuring a real celebrity. The star might have been in the restaurant during the murder in a detective story you're writing.

It would be great to have your main character interview them. To do this, however, you will need to seek their written permission. 

This permission can be attained from either the celebrity themselves or an appropriate representative. You will need to reach out to their agent or staff to get their approval. This will remain the case even if just quoting them very briefly for a few facts.

If ever you are in doubt regarding the use of a celebrity in your work, be sure to consult a lawyer for advice before publication. 

The celebrity's name may be okay, albeit without their image. There is still some risk in using the full name of a celebrity with negative characteristics, as the real person may feel offended.

A good option is to use part of a name. That way, the reader gets the back story from the parent while the character is very distinct from the real-world person.

In light of the potential pitfalls, perhaps it would be better to stay away from having real people, celebrity or otherwise, be a part of your book. 

Real people can be used as characters in your book, but you'll have very similar problems as you would with a famous person. You might also be sued for defamation if you portray someone negatively. Since they are not well known and therefore not newsworthy, they may not have as much effect on your book, but they can still take legal action nonetheless.

You may want to consider using a person's attributes under a new name. It's less dangerous, but you still have to be careful with it. You also may not be able to stay out of trouble by just changing their name if the person you describe is very distinctive.

You’ll have the same risk if someone familiar with the person or worse the actual person can read your description and identify who it is.

The best thing to do is use specific people as inspiration but not use all the same facts about them. Change a few key details about the character to give him or her life and depth, and to make them very different from the person they are based on.

What Is An Invasion Of Privacy Claims?

Privacy invasion is the unjustified invasion of another's personal life without their consent. However, invasion of privacy does not constitute a tort by itself; rather it is composed of four distinct causes of action. 

State laws vary on whether or not these causes of action are recognized, as well as what elements have to be proven, so you should check with your state's laws or consult a lawyer before filing a lawsuit.

Invasion of privacy may be caused by any of the following four types of torts:

  • The use of a person's name or likeness
  • False Light
  • Intrusion Upon Seclusion
  • Disclosing private information

Note: It is possible to be sued for violating someone’s right to privacy even if you publish the truth. An invasion of privacy suit can be brought against you whenever you divulge private details about a living individual that are: 

  • Embarrassing 
  • Unbearable 
  • Offensive to ordinary sensibilities, or
  • Not of overriding public interest.

What Is Considered As Defamation Or Libel?

If a statement damages the reputation of an individual or an organization, it is defamatory.

Defamatory material can only be published if it falls within one of the recognized legal defenses (see below). The publication (in any form: audio, blogs, books, videos, fiction, dramas, etc.) is deemed libelous and you may have to pay substantial damages.

The same applies if you publish a defamatory or libelous statement made by someone else (on a blog, for example, or in a book), even if you quote the statement accurately.

Individuals and organizations are rightly protected against inaccurate, unwarranted, or untruthful attacks on a person’s reputation by the law of libel.

When Is A Person Considered Libeled?

A publication libels a person if the content:

  • Discredits the person in their profession, business, or trade
  • Subjects them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule
  • Has caused them to be avoided or shunned
  • Society generally views them negatively as a result

Nevertheless, a writer is sometimes forced to address issues of corruption, injustice, and other behaviors. It is helpful to understand libel law and the most common defamation defenses when doing so.

Bear in mind, however, that politicians, journalists, police, lawyers, celebrities, big businesses, and those whose reputation is important to their livelihood are more likely to file libel suits.

Are There Any Limitations To Writing About Real People Based On My Profession?

It depends largely on what you do for a living. An attorney, for example, is not allowed to use confidential information about a client, even if the name is changed and the identity is masked. 

The same applies to a doctor, accountant, or therapist. 

You have a duty not to divulge private information if you are a partner, trustee, or have a fiduciary relationship with a third party or a minor. If your job required you to sign a confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement, you will also not be able to discuss anything or person you encounter while on duty. 

Your settlement agreement probably contains nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses if you were a party to a dispute settled out of court (including a divorce). If you disclose too much, you may be able to unravel the agreement.

Also, during your employment, you may gain valuable insight into manufacturing details, marketing plans , and formulas. Disclosing these trade secrets could result in you losing your job and facing a lawsuit, even if they are true.

Top Tips To Employ To Minimize Your Legal Risks When Writing About Real People

The number of lawsuits against authors is relatively low, considering the thousands of books published each year. Proving claims is challenging, but not impossible. To reduce the risk of becoming one of the unlikely few, authors should consider the following:

  • Whenever possible, use publicly-available information, such as court documents and news reports. You will find plenty of valuable information in court filings.
  • Think about the importance of private information for your story. Disclosure of confidential information maliciously or gratuitously can face punishment by judges and juries who are moralistic.
  • Memory is subjective, and it tends to change over time. Conduct research and interview others to verify and expand your memory. Maintain records to corroborate your claims. Be realistic when speculating. Don't state your opinions as facts, but as opinions.
  • If you can, get a written release and consent.
  • Take advantage of parody and satire. It is not a statement of fact if what you describe is impossible to be true. 
  • Identifying features should be masked if your fictional character is based on a living person. You can make physical changes and change their life histories so they cannot be recognized. For more villainous characters, you should make more changes. A company can also be used as an evil character, like a polluter.
  • It is best not to say things like "do not do business with XYZ company." Instead, tell the story of your experience. Readers will understand.
  • Use labels such as corrupt, pervert, cheat, or crook instead of calling someone criminal, sexually deviant, or diseased. Keep your response to verifiable facts and your emotional, personal feelings. As the old saying goes, show, not tell. Leave it up to your readers to make their own conclusions.

About The Author

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Arielle Phoenix

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Five rules on how not to write a biography | Jon Collins

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

I don’t have decades of experience as a particular kind of biographer. I’ve written two biographies about rock bands, Marillion and Rush, the first of which I fully updated because I didn’t like the first version; I’ve co-written a (poorly-titled) book on IT — “The Technology Garden” — which involved numerous interviews; and indeed my day job involves interviewing people and writing down their backgrounds, thoughts and aspirations; I assisted Mike Oldfield in writing his autobiography; and I’ve written a hefty part of a novelisation of the life and times of the violinist, Paganini.

So, if life is indeed a journey, I’m perhaps a little further down the road than others — what I can do is pull out some common threads from these efforts. With this in mind, here’s my five lessons gleaned from writing biographies.

Almost inevitably, I will be touching on my own story ( cf Rule Two) so I’m going to get a few bits out of the way before I start: first, a ‘classical’ education and a general bookworm nature introduced me to a love of language; second that I didn’t write anything beyond computer code until 1994, when I was encouraged to put an article together by a colleague, David Herz (and thus started two decades of self doubt, a point to which I will return); third, the consulting firm I worked for next had a stringent (a.k.a. bruising) editorial process for its reports; fourth, in 1999 I was involved in the launch of one of the first blogging sites,, which required the ‘duty’ writer to churn out three articles a day. All in all, by the time I got to my mid-life crisis, the written word held no fear for me.

I could draw out all kinds of lessons about writing in general from that lot, which I will summarise in two ways: the first is that, if I didn’t do ten thousand hours, I am reasonably certain I have generated at least a million words — it’s the only way to hone the craft. As for the second, I refer the kind reader/audience to the wise words of my good friend Karin Breiter, who had to listen to my existential rants about whether I could deliver something of value. “Shut up and write,” she told me, so, I did.

The following, then, are lessons learned specifically from, and about biography.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Rule One. Don’t do it for the money

My first biography was about Marillion — having hit life’s wall, I decided to get back into music and then to do something for myself. I’d come up with the madcap idea of writing a book about the band (I’d also figured out it was a good way to deal with what was turning into an obsession, to channel my energies — little did I know that’s exactly what obsessive people do, more on this later).

I met the keyboardist, Mark Kelly, before a gig and thrown the idea out there. “Sure, why not!” he said in apparent endorsement — I was later to learn he says that about anything new and out there. Still, it was the hook I needed. So, yes, I picked that target, and I didn’t do it for the money — I gave all the royalties to charity, largely through guilt at profiting from the true stories of others, and also if I’m honest as it made for an easier opener.

Why is this important? Because since then, when I have actually worked out the revenue vs effort, and it doesn’t stack up. Even with the endorsement of a popular band, using a standard royalty model the whole thing made about seven thousand pounds — that’s for several months of effort. Following the experience, I was offered opportunities to work with other bands but no amount of maths would deliver more than something roughly equivalent to the minimum wage per hour of effort, however interesting the stories might be (the world is chock-full of fascinating stories, but that doesn’t mean people want to read them).

Yes, this is a standard piece of advice for any writer — perhaps the biography spin is that you can’t expect something to be any more lucrative just because it is about someone well known, or an interesting topic. I do know people who have generated a living out of biographies, largely through the standard long-tail model of writing lots of them.

A final point on the topic of money is — plan to pay the photographers, they are in the same boat as you.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Rule Two. It’s not about you

This may appear obvious, and to a literary audience unnecessary, and indeed (given the fact I’ve just been talking about my own experiences) potentially hypocritical but let’s look at this. A ‘classic’ example of how not to write a biography is someone else’s past history of Rush, which somehow, inexplicably, shifts from being about the band to being about the author’s experiences with the band. How does this happen? The answer lies deep-rooted in our psychology, which is why it’s worth bringing up.

Fact: authors (including biographers) are obsessive. They need to be: when people say they have a book inside them, they probably mean they have a good idea and about ten to twenty thousand words worth of effort. Getting beyond thirty is a more than a chore, and the real chasm is at around fifty — indeed, without having publicly announced the first book I wrote, I’m not sure I would have ever finished it.

The trick, therefore, is to use this obsession as an asset, and to minimise any less positive effects. A good biographer is a quiet servant, a butler, whose job is to ensure that the subject’s best interests are met; or a detective, or a scientist, who needs to stand by and let the facts do the talking. We might all want to be pundits or columnists, and boy, do we have interesting things to say, right? — but within the biography is not the place. All the same and as we will see, it is important to have a view, a ‘take’ on events. Let’s come to that.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Rule Three: It’s not about absolute truth

Very early on in my biographical journey, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was going to be working with an incomplete set of information. By way of analogy, I consider myself lucky that when I undertook jury service, my case was, essentially, a punch-up at a wedding. “Lucky” because it could have been several weeks of throughly dull corporate fraud, or something harrowing like the death of a child.

As it was, it involved several people entering the dock and trying to tell their version of the alcohol-fuelled events: suffice to say the details very quickly diverged. Biography is a lot like that courtroom experience: people are always keen to put their spin on history, missing out details or even pulling them in, conflating multiple events, incorporating explanations and justifications and so on. The biographer’s job becomes that of creating a coherent narrative, triangulating, extrapolating and gap-filling.

It’s a matter of judgement: for example, when I wrote the Rush book I took the leap of faith that the guitarist really did detest the increased use of keyboards. Turns out I was right on that occasion, but equally, it’s a risk. As well as triangulation, there are other ways of managing this risk. Not least, planning to speak to as many people as possible, or reviewing other material — even ghost-writers can read other biographies or have off-the-record chats to fill in details.

While it may be uncomfortable, it’s worth asking the harder questions, which requires a level of rapport. Start from the point of view that you need to get endorsement or at least confirmation, and work from there: whether you decide to get a biography authorised, it will still need to be defensible (we have laws about that sort of thing). This goes for every quote, not just your own personal interviews.

In parallel, you can plan for both scope and level. Not all biography needs to be exhaustive, or indeed should be. Perhaps a subject’s five years in India were the most boring times ever, or perhaps that period deserves a book to itself.

Scope is very important: you may know what this is in advance, or you may find it out as you work through the material you uncover. And similarly, you will need to decide the level of detail you are working at, in temporal or other terms — is this a blow by blow account, or a broad history? You should probably not reach the half way point without having made a decision on both scope and level, as anything outside of this will be wasted effort.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Rule Four: It is about real people (stupid)

This brings to the next point, and a thought experiment. Imagine you’re just going about your normal day, it’s a Saturday morning, say, so you’ve got a bit of time on your hands but have a bunch of things you’d like to get round to. There’s a knock on the door, which you answer. Somebody you have never met, let’s say a chap, unshaven and a bit shabby, introduces himself and, with little warning, asks you about your marriage, or your finances, or your childhood.  Not only that, but they intimate some kind of threat, perhaps they have spoken to someone else about it and want to hear your side.

Feeling uncomfortable? Now imagine yourself as someone asking what you thought was a perfectly reasonable set of questions and wondering why you are getting short shrift. And remember that thing about obsession and therefore forgetting that you are potentially rubbing salt into wounds, however well-meaning you might be.

Alongside sensitivity and empathy, remember that other thing, about risk. At the end of the day, whatever your motivations, your job is to capture a bunch of information from a pool of people (wide or narrow) and arrange it in a coherent manner. You can do yourself a lot of favours by not being that chap, by preparing for meetings, informing people in advance, putting them at their ease, looking smart and giving them confidence, and so on.

In the case of Rush, I unthinkingly spoke to a friend of the band about writing a book, mentioning that I had written the authorised book on Marillion. What he heard was that I was writing the authorised book of Rush — which he reported to the band. It was enough to bring the shutters down on the whole project. Lesson learned, but the hard way.

This also brings to the importance of fact-checking. Another salutary tale was a single, missing word in the original Marillion biography: when Fish left the band in 1989, much of the anguish was caused about how revenues were split between band members. When documenting this, I wrote “50% of the royalties” rather than “50% of the publishing royalties” (i.e. a much smaller overall figure).

In that single word from my perspective, were no end of arguments, cold silences, meetings, astonishing legal fees and other life-changing moments for the band members. One word, big impact — and a major motivation for re-issuing the biography.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Rule Five: Ultimately, it’s not (just) about the facts

At the same time, your job is not (only) to capture a part of history but also to inspire and enthral, to have a reader turning pages wanting to know what happens next. The late, wonderful Sean Body, the self-styled ‘big cheese’ at Helter Skelter Publishing, he who gave me my break and mentored me through the writing process, told me of the dangers of writing album-tour-album style music biographies.  Not only are these inevitably superficial (does anyone actually think that musicians go into cold-store outside of these cycles?) but they are also incredibly dull. I still have his copy of Long time Gone; Scar Tissue is another example of a great autobiography. This same principle applies to business books, to any subject area for that matter… why do you think Malcolm Gladwell is so popular?

Facts are interesting and important, but they should be subordinate to narrative. Where you don’t know the absolute sequence of events for example, you can use a bit of license in how you arrange them — take a leaf from Bernard Cornwell, or indeed, Ken Follett, both of which will add a note about how they may not have stuck to a strict sequence (and their books are all the better for it).

You can, if you wish, adopt a novel-type structure, with all of its twists and turns. Of course, if this starts to distort reality, that is not a good thing. However, if the historical tale actually does snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or otherwise reflect a handy plot device, all the better for bringing that out. This is ultimately what sets apart a great biography from a mere retelling of the facts; it also creates the perfect foil against the press and Amazon reviewers who will, inevitably, know more about the subject than the author. Within the process, your job is to collect as much information as you need about the subject according to the scope and level you have set, but its output should be a joy to read.

Ultimately, and here’s the rub, all writers are storytellers, and all storytellers are biographers. Tolkien once said, “stories are spells”: we need to be careful how we cast them, therefore. I hope this has helped anyone thinking of writing a biography, and I welcome any feedback.

This article first published on  Medium .

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Can You Write a Best Selling Book about Someone without Permission?

without permission

Ann O'Brien

January 12, 2023

As an author, you have the right to write about whatever topic you choose. Or do you? When it comes to writing a fictionalized or even purely non-fiction story about another person, writers should tread lightly to make sure that their books don’t cross any legal boundaries. But crafting a story based on a real person or another person’s life story without permission can be possible under certain circumstances. Let’s take a look at the legalities surrounding writing a book about someone without permission and what authors need to know to protect themselves as well as treat the subject of their work respectfully.

An Author’s Right to Write

Many authors use a real person, situation, or a combination of both as their inspiration for a book. In fact, as the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun and that’s why so many stories have threads of commonality, especially throughout each specific genre. But when authors choose to write about a specific person without permission or a real set of events (which necessarily will involve the unique actions of those individuals who were involved) without their express consent, authors run the risk of crossing legal lines.

More than just creating hard feelings, without permission to write a book, authors can cross several legal lines: invasion of privacy, libelous behavior, or even defamation of character laws. Each of these legal designations is serious, but can an author be prosecuted for crossing that line in a fictional or fictionalized book? Yes and no.

In fact, many people, including celebrities, famous individuals as well as regular people have been made a subject in books that presented them in a negative if not authentic way. And while the risk of prosecution is generally fairly low for writing about someone without permission, it is not zero. But authors without permission could affect their own reputation as a writer. Writers who choose to write about others without permission to do so may lose credibility within the writing world and gain a reputation among readers and other writers as someone without integrity.

What Is Considered an Invasion of Privacy?

Writing a story that includes specific details about a real person can be considered an invasion of their privacy. Although every state has its own laws and regulations concerning the invasion of privacy, generally these regulate privacy concerns in four ways. Each of these can be legally prosecuted when an author violates one without permission.

  • Misappropriation of a person’s likeness or name – using someone’s name or likeness for their own benefit
  • Painting someone in a false light – recklessly and intentionally misleading the public about someone
  • The disclosure of private information – revealing addresses, phone numbers, and unique private information that point directly to a specific person
  • Intrusion upon seclusion – an intentional disruption upon someone who has tried to seclude themselves or their story

Invasion of privacy also extends to revealing the truth about a person if doing so will be overly offensive, cause them distress or embarrassment, will make their life unbearable as a result, or if the knowledge is not something the public has a right to know. Authors who include any of these types of personal information without permission, even if it is true, can be legally prosecuted by the offended public or private individual.

Understanding Libel Laws

Libel laws protect people from being discredited within their business or profession, shunned or avoided by society, or being subject to hatred, ridicule, or contempt by society. Even if a writer quotes another person or organization with a libelous statement, the writer is still legally responsible for the words that they have written. Authors may want to present the truth of a situation, which may include presenting information that is libelous, but seeking to write the truth about someone or their situation can be tricky if the subject matter is libelous and done without permission.

Defamation of Character Explained

The final legal pitfall that writers face when writing a book without permission by the subject is the potential to defame their character. Damaging someone’s reputation by presenting an untrue story as factual is called defamation of character. Opinions about a person do not defame, but they can fall under the libel category. Authors have to be careful to sidestep defamation claims by not including false or misleading information without permission that can affect a subject’s reputation.

Writing about a Real Person

Since famous authors use real people in their fiction and non-fiction books all the time, it is safe to say that is acceptable for any writer to do so as well. Referencing a real person in the forward, dedication, and acknowledgment areas of your book is generally considered an honor, so including them in those locations is usually appreciated, even if without permission.

And authors who present real people in a positive and neutral way usually do not have any legal concerns either. But writing about a real person in a way that defames, libels, or invades their privacy without permission to do so is risky for any writer and may result in a lawsuit as well as present credibility problems for you as an author. If you do include publicly sourced information about a person in your fiction or non-fiction book, be sure to have sources to prove that the information you included was factual.

Celebrities vs. Private Individuals

Every day we are bombarded with news and social media coverage about celebrities and other public people, but that does not mean you can write without permission. So it’s easy to forget that their lives, stories, and reputations are also subject to the same privacy laws as anyone else. But authors who want to include a celebrity in their stories in any way will need to reach out to the celebrity or their management team to obtain permission to write book stories or anecdotes that include them. Failure to do so, even if they are just a brief mention in the story, can result in legal problems for an author.

Tips to Protect Your Work

So what if your book would benefit from including a real person or a celebrity in some way? Use these tips to help you protect your work from legal concerns while integrating real people into your book.

Get Permission

The best and most fail-safe strategy is to simply ask for book permission from your subject. Written permission, even if it’s in the form of an informal agreement, is a good way to protect yourself and your book from legal troubles in the future.

Use Public Information

Publicly obtained research can oftentimes provide plenty of information for you to use in your book. Public court documents and news reports are a great resource when seeking previously released information.

Do Your Research

Complete your own research in addition to the documentation you find publicly. Keep a file of the interviews and information you discover as a resource for this book as well as for potential future projects.

Redefine Identifiers

If you love the story or details about someone, pick some of the unique qualities or characteristics that they have and give them to a created character instead of using the person in your story. If a person is easily linked to a characteristic or trait, be careful to change enough about your new character that the real person or celebrity is not identifiable.

Show Readers Instead of Persuading Them

Remember that your job as a writer is to show the reader rather than always telling them what to think or feel. Use your powers of description to show readers a truth, a detail, or a characteristic about a person, celebrity, or even business that you have included in your story rather than definitively presenting their actions or traits as fact. Avoid saying directly negative things about those characters or things inspired by real life and instead show their actions for readers to interpret. Let readers draw their own conclusions.

Use Satire and Parody

Readers are skilled at reading between the lines so authors can employ tried and true techniques to imply meaning without directly talking about someone or something.

Make Your Book a Reality

Whether you include real people, celebrities, real events and stories or just use them for inspiration for your next project, printing your book is the final step in crafting a compelling story that your readers will love and will want to read over and over.

And working with a trusted printing company like Publishing Xpress can help you bring your fiction and nonfiction projects to life with a beautifully published book that looks great. From the expertly designed cover to the final pages, books at Publishing Xpress are transformed from concept to final published form with quality materials and professional support for authors of all levels of expertise.

With our wide range of options, four binding styles, outstanding customer service, quick turnaround times, and free shipping on orders over $399, you’ll be glad you trusted your book to Publishing Xpress and their outstanding services.

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Entertainment law, obtaining rights to make a film based on a book, protecting songs, scripts and film or tv ideas, independent films and legal issues, writing a book or song about a real person, legal issues when forming a professional band.

Home Legal Answers Entertainment Law Writing a book or song about a real person


There are many legal issues to consider when writing a book or song about a real person, without their permission.

First, you can do it but you must be careful about what you say or allege. For example, you may be successfully sued for defamation if you allege criminal or moral wrongdoing by a person and cannot prove it in court.

The law of defamation in Canada does allow anyone to safely publish information about others so long as they can call upon one of several defences. For instance, there is the defence of “justification” or truth.  But proving information is true in a court may be harder than you imagined. Second, there is the defence of “fair comment,” which allows a person to state a series of provable facts and then make an honest and fair commentary on those facts. Regardless, there are often serious financial consequences if someone loses a defamation lawsuit in addition to which they are expensive to litigate.

Another legal consideration is whether the real person might be seen as endorsing some commercial venture associated with the book or song. Using a person’s image or name for what is essentially a commercial, promotional or advertising purpose is basically stating the person endorses your product. If he or she didn’t authorize it, an action for “misappropriation of personality” can be pursued in the civil courts.

Finally, does the real person have to be alive? For some famous people, there is an argument to be made that wrongly using their name in association with an unapproved work may endanger the financial viability of their estate or some ongoing business.

When a real person is the subject of a creative work, it is often best to consult a lawyer with experience in entertainment law.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Life Story Rights – Clearance and Acquisition for Literary Works

Truth is stranger than fiction. It is an old adage that, for writers, equals entertainment. Maybe the story is uplifting or heroic, sad or horrific. Maybe the story is a retelling of noteworthy events, a glimpse into the private lives of public figures, a compelling dramatization of a private citizen’s life. Whatever the subject matter, choosing to write about facts and events involving others brings with it significant legal risks that must be analyzed for legal clearance and the necessary permissions and acquisitions of life story rights (regardless of whether the literary work is a biography, memoir, screenplay, or fictionalized true story from the writer’s own life or someone else’s). If not, the writer and publisher might find themselves the recipients of a cease-and-desist letter, or worse, the defendants in a lawsuit.

What are Life Story Rights?

Life story rights are a collection of legal rights held by an individual regarding a story about someone’s life. The purpose for securing these rights or the permission to use the facts of someone’s life is to protect the writer and publisher from being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, or the misappropriation of the right to publicity. Life story rights agreements, depending on the breadth of the contract language, allows the writer to use and potentially change or dramatize the life story for entertainment purposes (whether in print or on screen).

The Legal Principles of Life Story Rights

1. defamation.

We usually hear the legal term “defamation” when a gossip rag damages a celebrity’s reputation by printing false rumors of a derogatory nature like a sexual escapade, or an ex-paramour’s heroine addiction. But defamation in literary work happens too, usually in memoirs and non-fiction. Thankfully, for writers and publishers, the success rate for defamation suits tends to be low. Even so, no one wants to spend time and resources in court. Where is the fun in that?

Defamation covers two torts: libel and slander. Libel is the publication of a false statement that injures a person’s reputation (as opposed to slander, which covers the verbal form of defamation). A libelous statement must be false and factual. The defamed person must be living and need not be identified by name. The real person need only be identifiable to readers via the information provided. Business entities and small identifiable groups (like a lacrosse team) can be defamed too.

If you find yourself subject to a claim of defamation, your best defenses would be truth, opinion, or parody/satire.

  • Truth is a complete defense to a defamation claim. No false statement equals no libelous statement. Even if minor inconsequential facts are incorrect, libel does not exist if the overall statement is true.
  • Opinions are protected (because opinions are neither true or false). This defense, however, can be tricky to navigate. Just because you say it is your opinion will not keep the statement from being defamatory. Merely implying a false statement can be enough. “In my opinion, she is an alcoholic” is just as defamatory as “she is an alcoholic.” These issues often arise with memoirs and biographical works. The best way to utilize this defense is for the writer to provide in their work the underlying facts on which the opinion is based, like, “She was convicted of a DUI, and then went to rehab.”
  • Parody and satire genres exaggerate material for comic effect, which is not considered to be true or a statement of fact.

These are defenses , which means you use them after you have been sued. Instead of relying on a defense, do your best to avoid a libel claim before you publish (see below).

2. The Right 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. While the truth can deflect a defamation claim, often the truth when disclosed can be the basis for an invasion of privacy claim.

Usually, invasion of privacy occurs when:

  • Private facts that are not of public interest are disclosed;
  • There has been intrusion into a person’s private life; and
  • Someone is portrayed or misrepresented in a false light, i.e. highly offensive to a reasonable person.

The injured person must be living (unless you want to dig up the casket and that is an invasion of another kind). The disclosure of private facts must cause harm to the person’s reputation (personal or professional). Mere embarrassment usually is not enough. The injured person must have a reasonable expectation the disclosed fact was to remain private. So, if facts occurred in a public setting, then most likely there is no expectation of privacy.

Often the most crucial point in a right to privacy claim is whether the disclosure was of public interest. Fortunately, writers have had luck in persuading courts that the disclosure of private facts is of public interest when it illuminates the human condition. Likewise, a memoirist is given leniency for disclosure of facts in her own story, even though it might be private facts inextricably intertwined with a third-party. But a third-party telling someone else’s story about a child born from an incestuous relationship that was never made public and the crime never reported has been held to violate the right of privacy. The facts were newsworthy; yet revealing the identity of the victim was not a matter of public interest.

3. The Right of Publicity

Misappropriation of the right of publicity is using someone’s name, likeness, or identifying characteristics for advertising, merchandising, endorsements, promotional, or commercial purposes without permission. The law normally applies to the living, although some states will extend the right of publicity posthumously. And it only applies to a person who makes money from who they are (i.e. famous people).

If you do not have permission, do not use someone’s name or likeness for commercial purposes. Just because you spilt a cocktail on Liza Minnelli at a party, you would not put her picture on the cover of your memoir to boost sales. But, if you have written a biography, screenplay, or news article about a famous person, permission is not required because the right of publicity yields to the First Amendment.

Likewise, you would not add Lee Child’s endorsement on your book if he has not given one. Nor would you claim an unauthorized biography of Madonna was authorized. Use common sense – no taking advantage of their reputation for commercial purposes without permission.

And of course, a real person, famous or not, can make cameo appearances if you stick to the facts that are in the public domain.

When to Secure Life Story Rights

Depending on whose story is the subject of the literary work, a writer may need to own or seek permission to use those life story rights or the story rights of any ancillary individuals involved even if they only figure marginally in the story.

Here are a few questions to consider when making that determination.

Is the life story yours or someone else’s?

If it is your story, the First Amendment allows you great latitude in telling it. But be cognizant of not invading the privacy of others involved in your life story. You may need permission to use facts involving third parties like lovers, siblings, or friends if the private facts would be highly offensive. If you are writing about someone else’s life story and the person is not a public figure, you may need to secure a life story agreement unless the story can be told using facts from the public domain – like news articles and court transcripts.

Is the subject of the life story dead?

If so, you are in luck. As noted above, the right to sue for defamation or invasion of privacy stops at the grave (feel free to spread as many lies or reveal as many secrets as you like). While the dead cannot suffer reputational harm, however, the right of publicity may extend to one’s heirs depending on the state. Be careful not to defame someone related to the dead – the wife of the dead man you claimed was head of a family-run meth lab may bring her own defamation suit.

Is the subject well-known?

Public figures and celebrities usually have trouble proving invasion of privacy because their lives are of public interest and there is less expectation of privacy. That is life in the spotlight. For example, Elizabeth Taylor failed to stop an unauthorized television biography of her life because the court held the biography was of interest to the public.

Is the event newsworthy?

Again, public interest tends to yield to the First Amendment, meaning courts typically give latitude to stories that are newsworthy. However, a person still might sue if they can prove they have been defamed. If the event or facts are not newsworthy, consider fictionalizing the true story (see below).

How to Avoid Being Sued for Violating Someone’s Story Rights?

  • List the people who are living or dead, who are famous, public, or private individuals. Are your characterizations of these people, or the story events involving these people, negative or favorable? If favorable, your chances of being sued are fewer. Remember, your idea of what is considered favorable may differ from what others consider to be favorable. If negative, then these will need closer legal inspection.
  • List the facts and scenes that might be objectionable. Are the facts or events you are writing about private, public, or newsworthy? Again, what you believe to be public or newsworthy may be different from what others believe to be public or newsworthy. Private facts demand closer scrutiny.
  • List the facts that need verification, the people who need interviewed, the people who must sign permissions and releases.
  • Keep records of your research. Record interviews. If you are writing a memoir or a biography, document your fact-finding and keep copies for proof that you have not made negligently false statements. Tape recordings are the best when interviewing. Next to that, contemporaneous notes are helpful (all of which should be dated, signed, and the place and source identified).
  • If you think readers will recognize the real person in your literary work who might have a legal claim, reduce your risk by layering in as many fictional details as possible to distance the character from the real person. Change the person’s sex, ethnicity, name, residence, age, physical traits, odd quirks, personal background, familial connections, profession, friends, time, setting, etc. Or create a composite character molded from a variety of people or events. The problem arises when the writer does not disguise enough so the connection between character and real person is easily linked, or they wrongly assume the real person will not consider their statements defamatory or disclosures an invasion of privacy. Just be aware that changes will not always shield a writer from liability.
  • Use common sense. As tempting as it might be, do not use your novel as revenge. That is asking for legal trouble.
  • Use a disclaimer or a nicely written acknowledgement. But remember, disclaimers are not full proof. In 2007, Augustine Burroughs settled a defamation suit filed by a family depicted in his memoir Running With Scissors . He agreed to call his literary work a  book  instead of a  memoir , and acknowledge that certain real families portrayed in his book might have memories of the events that differ from his. While disclaimers that acknowledge certain names and places have been changed can help, it may not prevent readers from identifying the real person who is the subject of the defamatory statement, and often will not shield a writer from liability.
  • Retractions can be useful under the right circumstances, but do not rely on these. Some states have retraction statutes, but these generally apply to newspapers, radio stations, and magazines. There are a few cases that involve online defamatory statements and the use of retractions to minimize damages. Retraction statutes do not generally apply to book publishers and could, if used, be considered an admission that the statement was false and defamatory.
  • Consult a lawyer to vet the manuscript and provide advice on how to minimize risk. If you are publishing traditionally, use your publisher’s legal department; if self-publishing, hire your own publishing lawyer. A lawyer will explain what is acceptable and what is not, and will draft an agreement with the appropriate provisions to secure ownership of life story rights.

Understand that negotiating these agreements involves competing interests between you and the subject of the story. The biggest item you are hoping to secure is a release from being sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, or misappropriation of the right of publicity. Depending on your project, you may want the subject’s or a third party’s cooperation. You may want access to personal materials, like photos or journals. Some projects demand the need for exclusive rights to the material so others cannot produce or create competing literary works. Other projects require more flexibility in how the real person is portrayed and the story embellished and dramatized.

If your literary project is based on real-life events or someone’s life story, a little upfront organization and legal scouring will save you hassles in the long run. The last thing you want is for your creative work to meet an untimely death from not securing the proper permissions and life story rights prior to publication or release.

Photo Credit:  closelyobservedphoto | Visual hunt  |  CC BY-NC-SA

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.

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6 thoughts on “life story rights – clearance and acquisition for literary works”.

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I have been asked to write the life story of two children whose mother was murdered when the children were 3 and 5, and when they were 13 and 15, their father shot them both , attempting to kill them. This post is both excellent and timely. Thank you for saving me hours and hours of necessary research.

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You’re welcome Helen. Glad you found the info useful. That’s definitely a story worth writing.

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Great column, as always,. I enjoy getting these every Saturday! Question: If writing a fictional story set in 1951, for example, if I create a police chief as a character, is there any concern that he could be tied to the real police chief of that time? Or the mayor, as another example?

Thanks Robert. If your police chief and mayor are fictional characters you’ve created, then I wouldn’t worry. If you are using a police chief and mayor from real-life, then layer in as many fictional details as possible to distance the character from the real person. Just be aware that changes will not always shield a writer from liability.

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I read this article in IBPA magazine. I want to fictionalize the life of Isabella Bird, a woman who wrote A Lady in the Rockies detailing her expereinces. She rode solo in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. There are a few books written about her and a few attempts bring it to life in fiction, but they are not good. Do I have to get permissions from the heirs, or the current pubisher of her memoir? Is her story public domain at this point in time. Thank You for clarification on this point.

Linda — With historical fiction you are using real-life persons and events as a jumping off point for creative storytelling. The legal concerns are minimal, especially since Isabella Bird has been dead for over 100 years. The dead can’t sue for libel or invasion of privacy. There is a concern about the right of publicity which may extend to one’s heirs depending on the state. You’ll need to decide if you want to take the risk. As a writer, I would think the risks are low for your historical fiction as long as you’re not writing about the heirs in an unfavorable light. One of our Sidebar Saturdays contributors, Johnathan Putnam, writes about Lincoln in fictional scenarios. Legal concerns are minimal for him when it comes to life story rights.

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Jane Friedman

A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter

when you need permission - fair use guidelines

Note from Jane:  This is a cornerstone post of my site, regularly updated.

Whenever you decide to directly quote, excerpt, or reproduce someone else’s work in your own—whether that’s a book, blog, magazine article, or something else—you have to consider, for each use, whether or not it’s necessary to seek explicit, legal permission from the work’s creator or owner.

Unfortunately, quoting or excerpting someone else’s work falls into one of the grayest areas of copyright law. There is no legal rule stipulating what quantity is OK to use without seeking permission from the owner or creator of the material. Major legal battles have been fought over this question, but there is still no black-and-white rule.

However, probably the biggest “rule” that you’ll find—if you’re searching online or asking around—is: “Ask explicit permission for everything beyond X.”

What constitutes “X” depends on whom you ask. Some people say 300 words. Some say one line. Some say 10% of the word count.

But any rules you find are based on a general institutional guideline or a person’s experience, as well as their overall comfort level with the risk involved in directly quoting and excerpting work. That’s why opinions and guidelines vary so much. Furthermore, each and every instance of quoting/excerpting the same work may have a different answer as to whether you need permission.

So there is no one rule you can apply, only principles. So I hope to provide some clarity on those principles in this post.

When do you NOT need to seek permission?

You do not need to seek permission for work that’s in the   public domain. This isn’t always a simple matter to determine, but as of Jan. 1, 2020, it includes any work published before 1926. (As of Jan. 1, 2022, it will include any work published before 1927. And so on.)

Some works published after 1926 are also in the public domain. Read this guide from Stanford about how to determine if a work is in the public domain.

You also do not need to seek permission when you’re simply mentioning the title or author of a work. It’s like citing a fact. Any time you state unadorned facts—like a list of the 50 states in the United States—you are not infringing on anyone’s copyright.

It’s also fine to link to something online from your website, blog, or publication. Linking does not require permission.

Finally, if your use falls within “fair use,” you do not need permission. This is where we enter the trickiest area of all when it comes to permissions.

What constitutes “fair use” and thus doesn’t require permission?

There are four criteria for determining fair use, which sounds tidy, but it’s not. These criteria are vague and open to interpretation. Ultimately, when disagreement arises over what constitutes fair use, it’s up to the courts to make a decision.

The four criteria are:

  • The purpose and character of the use.  For example, a distinction is often made between commercial and not-for-profit/educational use. If the purpose of your work is commercial (to make money), that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in violation of fair use. But it makes your case less sympathetic if you’re borrowing a lot of someone else’s work to prop up your own commercial venture.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work . Facts cannot be copyrighted. More creative or imaginative works generally get the strongest protection.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work . The law does not offer any percentage or word count here that we can go by. That’s because if the portion quoted is considered the most valuable part of the work, you may be violating fair use. That said, most publishers’ guidelines for authors offer a rule of thumb; at the publisher I worked at, that guideline was 200-300 words from a book-length work.
  • The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work . If your use of the original work affects the likelihood that people will buy the original work, you can be in violation of fair use. That is: If you quote the material extensively, or in a way that the original source would no longer be required, then you’re possibly affecting the market for the quoted work. (Don’t confuse this criteria with the purpose of reviews or criticism. If a negative review would dissuade people from buying the source, this is not related to the fair use discussion in this post.)

To further explore what these four criteria mean in practice, be sure to read this excellent article by attorney Howard Zaharoff that originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine:   “A Writers’ Guide to Fair Use.”

In practice, if you’re only quoting a few lines from a full-length book, you are most likely within fair use guidelines, and do not need to seek permission. But to emphasize: every case is different. Also, much depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.

can you write a biography about someone without their permission

Three important caveats about this chart

  • Nothing can stop someone from suing you if you use their copyrighted work in your published work.
  • The only way your use of copyright is tested is by way of a lawsuit. That is, there is no general policing of copyright. Therefore, how you handle copyrighted content depends on how risk averse you are. If you decide not to seek permission because you plan to use a fair use argument, be prepared with the best-possible case to defend your use of the copyrighted content in the event that you are sued.
  • If you intend to produce material that is accessible worldwide and in digital form (such as content on the internet, ebooks, etc), and if you are using content considered in the public domain in the United States, you should double-check whether the content is also in the public domain in other countries. You can learn more about this issue in The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman .

If you’re concerned about your risk, you can also search for the rights owner’s name and the keyword “lawsuit” or “copyright” to see if they’ve tried to sue anyone. However, just because someone hasn’t sued yet doesn’t mean they won’t sue you.

If you seek permission, you need to identify the rights holder

Once you’ve decided to seek permission, the next task, and one of the most difficult, is identifying who currently holds the copyright or licensing to the work. It will not always be clear who the copyright holder is, or if the work is even under copyright. Here are your starting points.

  • First, verify the actual source of the text. Sometimes writers use quotes from Goodreads or other online sources without verifying the accuracy of those quotes. (As someone who is misattributed on Goodreads, I can confirm: people are misattributed all the time .) If you don’t know the source, and you don’t know the length of the source work, and you don’t know if what you are quoting is the “heart” of the work, then you are putting yourself at risk of infringement.
  • If you’re seeking permission to quote from a book, look on the copyright page for the rights holder; it’s usually the author. However, assuming the book is currently in print and on sale, normally you contact the publisher for permission. You can also try contacting the author or the author’s literary agent or estate. (Generally, it’s best to go to whomever seems the most accessible and responsive.)
  • If the book is out of print (sometimes you can tell because editions are only available for sale from third parties on Amazon), or if the publisher is out of business or otherwise unreachable, you should try to contact the author, assuming they are listed as the rights holder on the copyright page.
  • You can also check government records.  Most published books, as well as other materials, have been officially registered with the US Copyright Office. Here is an excellent guide from Stanford on how to search the government records.
  • For photo or image permissions: Where does the photo appear? If it’s in a newspaper, magazine, or an online publication, you should seek permission from the publication if the photo is taken by one of their staff photographers or otherwise created by staff. If you’ve found the photo online, you need to figure out where it originated from and/or who it’s originally credited to. ( Try using Google Image Search. ) When in doubt, seek permission from the photographer, keeping in mind that many photographers work through large-scale agencies such as Getty for licensing and permissions. Photo permissions can get complex quickly if they feature models (you may need a model release in addition to permission) or trademarked products. Here is an excellent, in-depth guide if you need it: Can I Use That Image?

Generally, you or your publisher will want nonexclusive   world rights  to the quoted material. “Nonexclusive” means you’re not preventing the copyright owner from doing whatever they want with the original material; “world rights” means you have the ability to distribute and sell your own work, with the quoted material, anywhere in the world, which is almost always a necessity given the digital world we live in.

Also, permission is generally granted for a specific print run or period of time. For example, if you seek permission for a 5,000-copy print run, you’ll need to secure permission a second time if you go back to press. (And if you publish a second edition, you’ll need to seek permission again.)

A possible solution for some authors: PLSclear

PLSclear , a UK firm, can help secure permissions. It is a free service; here is the list of publishers that participate.

If you’re under contract with a publisher

Just about every traditional publisher provides their authors with a permissions form to use for their project (be sure to ask if you haven’t received one!), but if you’re a self-publishing author, or you’re working with a new or inexperienced house, you may need to create your own.

To help you get started, I’ve created a sample permissions letter you can customize ; it will be especially helpful if you’re contacting authors or individuals for permission. It will be less necessary if you’re contacting publishers, who often have their own form that you need to sign or complete.

To request permission from a publisher, visit their website and look for the Permissions or Rights department. Here are links to the New York publishers’ rights departments, with instructions on how to request permission.

  • Harpercollins permissions information
  • Penguin Random House permissions portal
  • Macmillan permissions
  • Simon & Schuster permissions
  • Hachette permissions

Will you be charged for permission?

It’s hard to say, but when I worked at a mid-size publisher, we advised authors to be prepared to pay $1,000–$3,000 for all necessary permissions fees if they were quoting regularly and at length. (Publishers don’t cover permissions fees for authors, except in special cases.) If you’re seeking permission for use that is nonprofit or educational in nature, the fees may be lower or waived.

What if you don’t get a response or the conditions are unreasonable?

That’s unfortunate, but there is little you can do. If you can’t wait to hear back, or if you can’t afford the fees, you should not use the work in your own. However, there is something known as a “good faith search” option. If you’ve gone above and beyond in your efforts to seek permission, but cannot determine the copyright holder, reach the copyright holder, or get a response from a copyright holder (and you have documented it), this will be weighed as part of the penalty for infringement. This is not protection, however, from being sued or being found guilty of infringement.

How to avoid the necessity of seeking permission

The best way to avoid seeking permission is to not quote or excerpt another person’s copyrighted work. Some believe that paraphrasing or summarizing the original—rather than quoting it—can get you off the hook, and in some cases, this may be acceptable. Ideas are not protected by copyright, but the expression of those ideas is protected. So, putting something in your own words or paraphrasing is usually okay, as long as it’s not too close to the way the original idea was expressed.

You can also try to restrict yourself to using work that is licensed and available under Creative Commons—which does not require you to seek permission if your use abides by certain guidelines. Learn more about Creative Commons.

What about seeking permission to use work from websites, blogs, or in other digital mediums?

The same rules apply to work published online as in more formal contexts, such as print books or magazines, but attitudes tend to be more lax on the Internet. When bloggers (or others) aggregate, repurpose, or otherwise excerpt copyrighted work, they typically view such use as “sharing” or “publicity” for the original author rather than as a copyright violation, especially if it’s for noncommercial or educational purposes. I’m not talking about wholesale piracy here, but about extensive excerpting or aggregating that would not be considered OK otherwise. In short, it’s a controversial issue.

Does fair use and permissions apply to images, art, or other types of media?

The same rules apply to all types of work, whether written or visual.

Typically, you have to pay licensing or royalty fees for any photos or artwork you want to use in your own work. If you can’t find or contact the rights holder for an image, and it’s not in the public domain, then you cannot use it in your own work. You need explicit permission.

However, more and more images are being issued by rights holders under Creative Commons rather than traditional copyright. To search for such images, you can look under the “Creative Commons” category at Flickr or VisualHunt .

Note: If you find “rights-free images,” that doesn’t mean they are free to use. It simply means they are usually cheaper to pay for and overall less of a hassle.

No permission is needed to mention song titles, movie titles, names, etc.

You do not need permission to include song titles, movie titles, TV show titles—any kind of title—in your work. You can also include the names of places, things, events, and people in your work without asking permission. These are facts.

But: be very careful when quoting song lyrics and poetry

Because songs and poems are so short, it’s dangerous to use even 1 line without asking for permission, even if you think the use could be considered fair. However, it’s still fine to use song titles, poem titles, artist names, band names, movie titles, etc.

If you want to consult with someone on permissions

I recommend my colleagues at Copy Write Consultants , who have experience in permissions and proper use of citations.

For more help

  • 12 Copyright Half-Truths by Lloyd Jassin at CopyLaw—addresses mistaken beliefs commonly held by authors; Jassin’s entire blog is very useful and worth reading
  • Citizen Media Law: Works Not Covered By Copyright
  • Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before You Use Copyrighted Material by lawyer Brad Frazer
  • Copyright Office FAQ : very helpful—addresses recipes, titles, ideas, names, and more
  • Very helpful interview with Paul Rapp , an intellectual property rights expert, over at Huffington Post. Discusses song lyrics, mentioning famous people, what constitutes fair use, and much more.
  • Are You Worried Your Work or Ideas Will Be Stolen?

Sample Permissions Letter

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has spent nearly 25 years working in the book publishing industry, with a focus on author education and trend reporting. She is the editor of The Hot Sheet , the essential publishing industry newsletter for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2023. Her latest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal. In addition to serving on grant panels for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund, she works with organizations such as The Authors Guild to bring transparency to the business of publishing.


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[…] […]

Diane Weber

Thank you for explaining this to us. I have been searching, and this is the clearest explanation I have found. I am certainly going to use your sample letter. I’m seeking permission to use a paragraph from a couple of old (1917-1926) newspapers (with credit, of course), and I think I can adapt your letter to my needs. (My middle grade novel is set during World War I.) I hope I get a positive response!

LaTanya Davis

Thank you so much! This is just what I’ve been looking for to get permissions for a memoir that I am self-publushing.

Jane Friedman

Excellent—good timing then. 🙂

[…] If you need to request permissions from an author or publisher, here are general guidelines, plus a sample letter you can customize.  […]

Alexis O'Neill

You’ve given us a really fabulous resource, Jane! Thanks for clarifying so much about the permissions process.

Happy to help!

[…] Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter […]


Jane, this is fantastic information. Thank you!!

[…] When you publish there are many details you need to track, especially if you self-publish. Roz Morris answers the question: should you use the free CreateSpace ISBN or your own ISBN? Sometimes you need to get permission to use lyrics, prose, or poetry from other artists in your work. Jane Friedman explains how to request permission and gives a sample letter. […]


Hi Jane, I have been reading some of your past blogs on this subject–including the comments and replies (your patience seems to know no bounds.)

I have a writing blog, and with each post I take a still from a famous movie (ranging from “The Bells” to “Star Wars” to “Pulp fiction”) and add a “funny” tag line. The picture is not relevant to the blog but the tag line I create is.

The first question I have to I need permission for the blog?

Secondly, I eventual hope to take one group of blogs (Quick 5 point guide to XXX) and make an e-book to give away FREE for subscribers. Do I need permission to use the movie stills here?

Thanks Kevin

Fair use & permission (as described in this post) apply to movie stills the same as text, and so it’s a significant gray area. Some of that is addressed here:

I’d be cautious. While I know this kind of activity is prevalent online (especially with memes), it doesn’t mean people are on the right side of copyright law.

Thank you Jane.


Hi Jane thank you for your article. I am currently writing a book so this helps a lot. I have a question however.

The source that I am requesting to use quotes from is non-fiction. If i do not get permissions, Is it possible to summarize the information in my own words instead of using direct quotations and then use a citation. This is sort of a loop hole instead of directly quoting the source.

It is based on the implication that direct quotes are more valuable than citing facts.

Hi James, You don’t need permission to paraphrase—but of course you should cite the source.

I think you are right but just to be more clear, In my particular case, there is a martial arts sect called Tzu Dawn. Basically 2 students have studied directly with the master and both students wrote their own separate books with their experiences studying the school.

I am a fanatic of the art. So my book compiles the information gathered from both of the student’s books in order to further explain my own concepts and ideas within the system, im taking people to the next level. Both of the students books are non-fiction.

i think the problem is that a large sum of the information in my book only comes from 2 sources, which are the only two available.

Then I’d ask for permission to be safe.

Hi Jane, do you know if I am allowed to quote people from public interviews in my book?

A person was speaking on a YouTube video free to the public, can i quote them in my book?

I’m afraid there are too many variables in both situations for me to offer a definitive answer. When in doubt, ask permission.



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