Many aspects of a person’s likeness are considered intellectual property rights. This means that another person cannot legally misappropriate another person’s name for commercial benefit (or in some cases non-commercial benefit). For example, you could not use another person’s signature, photo, or voice for your own gain. These examples aren’t always what a person means when they use the words “likeness,” though.
When can you use another person’s likeness in your writing?
First and foremost, when you depict events that are true, you can always use real names and events. It doesn’t mean you won’t get sued. It only means you have the law on your side. Keep in mind that the burden or proof for slander or libel is on the plaintiff. Let’s say you write about a childhood experience involving a fight between you and a friend. Your friend isn’t happy about having their name dragged through the mud, so to speak. But in order to successfully sue you, they need to prove the event did not happen like you described. That can be an impossible task.
Generally, no one gets sued when real names are used in a positive light. When casting another person in a negative or embarrassing light, though, you should be prepared to fight your claims in court. If the claims are true, you shouldn’t run into big problems. If neither party can prove their claims are true, then the defendant wins the case by default (or at least they should based on the laws in play).
What should you remember? Never use pictures or other types of intellectual properties that belong to another person without their permission, especially when doing so for commercial gain. But you can also describe real people and real events the way they happened whether or not you have permission to do so — because history is history, and we all have the right to share it.