Kennedy Assassination

Not that I am itching to make a game of the particular example I mention here. I’m just curious about this.

Incidentally, has anybody else noticed how dabbling even a little in IF seems to sensitize you up so that when you read normal fiction, ideas are constantly popping into your head about how to make this or that subplot or situation work in an IF game. Is it the same for others here or am I just not normal?

So, I just finished reading American Tabloid by wassizname Ellroy something, and started wondering: can publicly well-known and historical personages and events be used and published freely in fiction, such as in a published IF game. Are there any legal issues eg. copyright, libel or anything else that might come into play and land the author in trouble? Would there be any difference on this if the events described were more recent, like just two or three years ago?

Say somebody was to write an IF game around the Kennedy assassination (JFK), complete with all the key characters and situations with the surrounding politics, crime and other settings. A lot of it could easily be rather less than flattering to some of the characters involved. Could the author be sued by the characters appearing in the story or their descendants or anybody else? I’m not talking about plagiarizing work already published by other writers, just writing about more or less verifiable or well-known historical facts plus spinning your own plots around those.

Are there any examples of published IF games where this has been done? Any examples of authors getting into legal complications because of it?

Obviously, you’d have to watch out for libel. If you publish a game where a certain real person turns out to be a child murderer, or something, you could be sued – and if your work isn’t obviously a parody, this might even work.

On the other hand, there are so many books accusing anyone even remotely connected to the case of killing Kennedy, that I think it’s safe to assume that a game about that particular case is not going to get you into trouble.

(I’m not a lawyer.)

I don’t think there’s any country whose laws give people an exclusive right to the story about their own lives – any news agency would be violating it constantly.

As for libel, of course, a piece of IF might in principle be defamatory. But defamation laws vary even more than copyright laws between countries. The UK e.g. has some reputation for being a country whose laws encourage libel suits and “libel tourism” (i.e. libel charges brought under English jurisdiction even though the case concerns foreigners).

I suppose the very small impact a work of IF has, makes it rather less likely that anyone would find it worth-while to file a libel suit against an IF author, though.

I am not a lawyer, but I believe that in the US the descendants of a dead person cannot sue for libel.

(You could look at Don DeLillo’s Libra, or maybe the movie JFK which I haven’t seen. I don’t believe those led to any libel suits.)

These guys got away with making a game about it just fine. They even hosted a competition to see who could replicate the actual assassination most accurately. Well, the version of the assassination the goverment would have you believe, of course!

The folks at already wrote a CYOA about this, too.

Google “lose your own adventure JFK” for the details, though it’s cached now (so you miss the awesome graphics) and, sadly, they don’t seem to be making any more of these books.

This actually reminded me of a movie called Executive Action, which to the best of my knowledge is the first film based on the Kennedy assassination. Wikipedia says it was highly controversial when first released, but I don’t see any mention of any legal action being taken against the film. (By the way, Pauline Kael hated this movie. In fact her review in Reeling (or at least I think that’s the book it’s in) is the only reason I know of the film.)

Anyway, Viktor has already hinted at one mitigating factor in this case, which is that the JFK assassination has gone beyond mere idle conspiracy speculation into a full-blown modern mythology. It is almost to American folklore what tanuki or one-legged umbrella monsters are to Japanese. To ban people from making wacky media about JFK’s assassination would be like forbidding people to make a movie about Paul Bunyan or the Headless Horseman. If someone was to make a game about how JFK was actually shot by Bigfoot, in collaboration with a time-traveling Elvis who was working with Richard Nixon (who was, I dunno, secretly a grey or something), I would play that thing in a heartbeat. Hell, I’d make that game in a heartbeat, if I weren’t such a lazy bum. [size=85](hint hint)[/size]

Might I recommend both Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy by O’Reily. Both books are almost impossible to but down and will fill your mind with graphics.

Mmm, zombie thread. But as old as this thread is, there is still a crucial point missing from it; specifically, that it is fairly irrelevant as a risk factor whether libel was actually committed. If a lawsuit even happens, the defendant could easily end up in financial ruin, win or lose. So the key question has nothing to do with the law; it is whether or not other artists have been sued before by the same people you are portraying, and if so, why. Examining the law and deciding that you aren’t in violation of it (in your opinion) may be comforting and emboldening, but it will actually have very little power to protect you from bad outcomes, in the event that any powerful person becomes fixated on making your life hell via the legal system.

I think it would be an impressive feat for an IF author to do a work that gets sued. (And, at least a minor feat to do something that were to get a stern but signed letter from an attorney. These are billable hours we’re talking about.)

It would depend more on whether the defendant has any money than on which medium the work was made in. After all, damages bear little relation to actual, y’know… damages.

Also, betting on being obscure for protection is not my favourite strategy.

That may be true, but I fail to see who would sue anyone in the specific case described in the thread (i.e., the Kennedy assassination). Who would be the probable plaintiff? The Kennedy estate? The government? And that’s ignoring the sizable history of insane JFK theories in books, movies, etc. There was a goddamn major motion picture and there wasn’t any legal action taken against the film’s producers and crew. Quite the opposite, actually.

There probably are two questions here: Is it possible to get sued for writing a piece of IF due to libel accusations, and is it probable.

IMHO any public discussion of somebody else’s character opens the possibility of getting sued for this. I think there’s a reason why every movie carries a declaimer, “All persons and events depicted are purely fictious.” In the Kennedy case, the parties concerned could not only be JFK himself, but of course everybody else who was part of the history and is mentioned in such a game.

As for the probability, I agree that it is low. Of course, whether you want to run the risk is up to each author for themselves.



Considering the sprawling breadth and comprehensiveness of JFK conspiracy theories, and the fact that the OP has not described his own variation in detail, nor mentioned which personages he was afraid of potentially being accused of libelling, I don’t think it’s really possible to reach the conclusion you have reached without making a whole lot of blind assumptions.

Or alternatively, if you find it more agreeable… what syzygy said.

If an interactive fiction author was successfully sued for libel of a public figure in the United States, it would be a watershed moment for the medium. Libel requires proof that the party was harmed, and it would be pretty amazing if a work of interactive fiction had a sufficient profile as to be determined by a judge that a public figure had been harmed enough by it to deserve damages, not even to mention the higher standard for libel of public figures. The legal part would all the more remarkable if the work was presented as being fiction.

Seriously, imagine: a public figure harmed by IF! I would hope it would get a “Special Recognition” XYZZY.

In short: my own advice would be to proceed as though you have zero probability of a lawsuit as a result of anything you might write about public figures in the context of a work designated as fiction regarding an assassination that took place 50 years ago. Probability-wise, if this keeps you from plowing ahead, you might as well never start any project because you could always get struck by lightning by the time you finish, etc…

Well I’m not telling anyone NOT to do something. I’m just saying the prior discussion of the risks was focused primarily on what the laws says is technically ‘libel’, and that is a big red herring which is nearly irrelevant to the question of whether one is ‘safe’. And that is not, if you think about it, wholly incompatible with your view, jeremy.

However, the fact that no IF authors have been sued before is one I find unpersuasive, much resembling the head-in-the-sand approach. ‘Well if ain’t happened yet, it won’t happen.’ That kind of inductive logic is pretty infamous for being unreliable. YMMV.

Personally I have faced very similar issues on the copyright side, in regards to my webcomic, which is just chock full of visual references to old Apple II games – so many it would be logistically impossible to get permission for them all – I doubt anybody has ever included so many direct visual quotations of different classic games in a single comic book. But I said, ‘Damn the torpedoes’ and published anyway, because it was just my thing and it had to be said, no matter what, and now I have to admit I kind of live in fear and it has prevented me from really pushing my comic out to as wide an audience as possible. Because when you rely on obscurity to protect, that means you are aiming for obscurity. Think about this for a second — that is fucked. In a certain sense, you really start to think, ‘Why did I bother?’

Anyway as a result I get really twisted up whenever I think about this. It’s a serious problem the way anybody can just point at you and ruin your life for remembering things fondly and quoting them, because of the way the legal system is badly designed, and I think libel shares a lot of the same problems. Even though the crime of libel is actually more serious, it is almost as easy to ruin somebody this way before a verdict is even reached, particularly outside America. (Where I live.)

Inside America, however, it seems it is a lot more difficult to prove libel and cases seem to sometimes get peremptorily dismissed, and since a JFK story is not very likely to touch on non-Americans, ‘the risk is minimal’ is probably the right prediction.

If I could do it all again, I’d try much much harder to really, be totally, utterly non-interested in classic games before writing my comic book. Liiving in fear of promoting your finished work is total BS. I do, however, believe in doing it anyway, when you feel something just has to be said and it means that much to you. Because otherwise, the machine wins and we and all our interests get crushed underfoot, and while the world can likely do without my work or anyone’s work in particular, in the aggregate there is a massive cultural tragedy going on, I think, because of all the people who choose not to take any risks. It’s a huge problem and I wish I had a solution besides periodic ranting.

You were the one who said the key question is “whether or not other artists have been sued before by the same people you are portraying”.

Has anybody been sued for writing any sort of fiction about the Kennedy assassination? I don’t think so. Therefore, I think there is no risk here.

A fair point, if true. However, I have no idea whether anybody has been sued over portraying a Kennedy conspiracy theory. I would actually be surprised if no one had, but shrug I dunno.

EDIT: Google lists quite a number of libel suits over Kennedy assassination theories. Didn’t see any specific fiction listed, but I stopped looking after a couple of pages.

We should all write games with real people in them and have a contest to see who gets sued for libel first.

Despair’s Lose Your Own Adventure book “Who Killed John F. Kennedy?”- formerly delayed, apparently - was recently launched on their site. Looks like it’s got a lot of real people in it (Arlen Specter, J. Edgar Hoover, Oswald, etc…)

Kinda doubt they’ll get sued.