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A couple months ago I had an idea for a novel, which would be told from the point of view of a teenage girl's fan letters and love poems to her favorite celebrity. The celebrity I chose was a real-life one whom I admire and am a fan of. I have written quite a bit already, and have been having fun with it, but I wanted to write and ask permission to use this person's likeness before getting too ahead of myself. As a freelancer, I am aware of what types of photo licenses can be used for commercial purposes, and I also am aware that I would need to get a model release from anyone whose photo I used on the cover of my book. I thought it would be fun to feature an old publicity still (which, to my understanding, are in the public domain if dated prior to 1989,) cropped in a heart-shaped frame, such as you would find on a cover of a teen magazine. So, I contacted the appropriate email on this celebrity's website, and pitched my idea, along with my request to use a photo (actually, I asked how I could go about obtaining permission. I half expected to be told I would have to pay a licensing fee to use this person's likeness.) I figured the worst they could do is say "No," and possibly ask me to not include their name in the title of my book. The book itself is not about this celebrity, nor is he featured as a character in any way. Nothing in the book is slanderous. It is a collection of love letters and poems from a fan, which she never sends because she feels they are not good enough. I felt anxious contacting this celebrity's representatives, because I knew if they responded in a negative or off-putting way, I'd be crushed.
And sure enough, I am crushed. I received a response a while ago saying that not only could I not use this person's likeness, I could not use his name, period. Anywhere in my book. Even though the book is not about him. It is about a fan. It is a story written out of love. I am not seeking this person's endorsement. I am not trying to cash in on anything by using their name. It was a fun project for me that helped me get past my writer's block. It was a project that distracted me from my depression. It was a labor of love, and it hurt reading a response that insinuated that I was somehow committing copyright infringement for even writing it. (Mind you, this is not something that has been published!) The person who responded reprimanded me for not seeking permission and any copyright issues up front (wasn't that what I was doing? Or attempting to do?) and advised me to consult with my "literary attorney to see where this book [I] have written falls." (I never said the book had already been written. I had also mentioned in my opening line that I am an independent author...I don't have a "literary attorney." I'm not J.K. Rowling, for Pete's sake! Whoops, am I allowed to say her name?)
I get celebrities have the right to privacy and to control their public image. And I respect that. Hey, you don't want me to use your name in my book. Fine. I'll fictionalize it. But don't make me feel small or talk down to me! I doubt the celebrity in question was even consulted regarding my inquiry, as the response came from his webmaster. Still, I feel gutted and sad and like my voice doesn't matter. My stories don't matter. I don't matter. I'm just an annoyance that some egotistical old star can swat away, like a fly. My stories and characters can be squashed and killed because they're not good enough. If I were a high-profile author, would I be having this issue?
Public figures are that—public. And to say that I cannot write about being a fan—when I am a fan—feels like a slap to the face. And right now, I don't feel very much like a fan at all. I feel like I have been censored and I worry that I'll never be able to publish any of the stories I'm working on because, god forbid, my characters might be obsessed with a band, or go to a movie, or maybe a character is described as looking like someone famous. (I knew a teacher in high school who relished the fact that he resembled Harrison Ford. Am I allowed to say that name? Or do I need to consult an attorney?)
Right now I am very, very disappointed, frustrated, and depressed. I feel like my story got killed before it was fully developed. Oh, eventually I'll get over it. I'll fictionalize the story and maybe I'll even still dedicate it to the person who tried to book block me. After all, they can't possibly sue me over a dedication, can they?