Monday, 2 May 2011

Libelling The Dead?

I refer to the recent libel case lodged by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien against Steve Hillard, the American author of self-published novel, Mirkwood, because he did not seek permission to make references to Tolkien in his novel.

Dana Celeste Robinson, of newly launched Knox Robinson Publishing says: “When I began this publishing house, I had no idea that the question of whether one could libel the dead was still moot........ coming from an academic background, I can attest that for those who research history, academic works are a mixture of fact and conjecture. Indeed, if we can no longer imagine how an historical figure may have made the decisions they made during their lifetimes or delve into the aspects (both good and bad) of their lives, then history as a discipline is dead.”

A ruling in the Tolkien case could set a precedent for or against an author’s rights to create fictional works involving real people, and the powers of an estate to control the use of names in works of fiction or historical accounts.

Carol Trow, an editor at Knox Robinson says: “Not being able to use people from history in books would damage the world of literature because recent history could not be written. No war films could be made, nor books written about it. No cowboy films could be shown, no courtroom dramas. That means no They Died With Their Boots On, no Inherit the Wind, no Valkyrie.”

Recently proposed changes to UK libel laws say proposed changes will ensure everyone the right to “speak freely and debate issues” without fear of libel actions, which have, according to UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, “Begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate and investigative journalism.”

The bill also seeks to end “libel tourism,” or the practice of suing individuals who do not live in the UK or an EU member state for libel in a British court. This bill could even put an end to the suit levied against Hillard by the Tolkien estate.

As an author who has recently completed a novel based on a real, if deceased, public figure, I shall watch the Tolkien case with interest and hope Kenneth Clarke’s bill finally sees the light of day – or I am not the only one who will henceforth be compelled to make up stories about non-existent characters in imagined worlds which bear no relation to any real person alive or dead!


Rosalie Skinner said...

What an interesting predicament. Surely common sense will prevail. How many ways can you make money from the estate of a deceased person, notable or not? This is almost laughable, except it is being taken seriously.
Hope it turns out in the favour of the future and imagination.

Jen Black said...

what will they do with all the books written about real historic characters? Burn them? They must number millions!