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Recently a lawsuit about books (and movies) made the news, A woman named Ablene Cooper, who worked (and still works) as a maid for author Kathryn's Stockett's older brother, sued Stockett alledging that the character of Aibileen Clark in Stockett's bestselling novel The Help was based on her without her permission. The lawsuit was dismissed because it wasn't filled on time. 

The Help is a bestseller and now the movie version has done very well at the box office. Kathryn Stockett has made a lot of money off a story about three back women in Jackson, MS and the young white woman who shows an interest in their lives. Once the movie came out, the story itself got a lot more scrutiny. A certain amount of criticism (or maybe it's more lamentation) focused on the fact that like so many stories held up as being about black people, much of it is about the white people who help them. 

But the lawsuit wasn't about that. The lawsuit was about the fact that one of the maids in the story was named  Aibileen Clark. This book was billed as a novel, and I'm sure it had the usual disclaimers (full discolusre: I haven't read the book or seen the movie) about it being a work of ficiton. But it seems to me, whether you're creating a composite character from people you know, or making up a whole new characters, you should not use a name that sounds really close to a real person, especially not one you know personally and are still in contact with.  And if you give that character traits that are very similar to the real person, you're pretty much asking to be sued.

I write, so my sympathies should be with the author, but I don't blame Ms. Cooper for feeling that someone was getting rich off of her life story. Her demand of $75,000 doesn't sound out of line in light of the money from the movie deal. If Stockett had used a gerneic Southern name from that era, like Sadie Johnson or Ethel Williamson, I'd say Ms. Cooper's case would be much weaker. As it is, I feel that Stockett really ought to pay Ms. Cooper the $75,000, regardless of the lawsuit's status. As it is, everyone who knows Ablene Coooper and goes to that movie will hear the name Aibileen Clark and think that character is her. I know if I had a unique name like, say Topika Saunders, and someone who knew me wrote a book that sounded like it was about me with a character named Topeka Smth, I would feel ripped off. 

I added a poll so you cna tell me what you think.  I believe you will need an LJ account to fill it out, though. 

Poll #1771375 Do you think Katheryn Stockett owes Ablene Cooper anything?

Should Katheryn Stockett give Ablene Cooper money?

Yes! In fact it should be more than the $75,000 she asked for
Yes, give her the $75,000!
No, the author doesn't owe her a cent
Some other resolution I will mention in a comment

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2011 06:15 pm (UTC)
If Sockett had created a character with a generic name of that era, then she'd be setting herself up for complaints that her characters were cardboard cutouts.

As it is, the name isn't enough. The character, her background, her motivations, and her voice all should enter into whether Sockett based the character off of the real person. There are a boatload of Mike Lawsons out there --there's even a published author named Mike Lawson-- but to identify which one is me takes a bit more than just the name. Even at my employer, I'm not the only Mike Lawson there.
Aug. 21st, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
I agree, and in fact Sackett gave her fictional Abileen a gold tooth, a dead son, and a job caring to a little white boy and girl, all traits shared with the real woman.
Aug. 21st, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
Part of me says no, she doesn't owe the woman anything. She inspired the character, maybe even WAS the character, but why does that give her anything other than a nod? She didn't give her life story, tell any secrets, liable her in any way. Was it unwise of the author to give her such a similar name?? Hugely unwise, and for this very reason. It was handled poorly, and that's unfortunate. But the woman hasn't LOST anything due to the book. Why should she gain anything for being someone who inspired a character. It's a dangerous precedent to set.

Another part of me says that if the author was so careless as to create this character in such close image of the real woman, give her almost the same name, and NOT contact her in any way asking her opinion, permission or whatnot, then she's an idiot and should pay SOMETHING.

Then again, if the book hadn't been so successful, this woman would never have come out of the woodwork. It smacks of, "You can afford it. Gimme my share!" and that's just not right.
Aug. 21st, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
See my reply to Mike's comment about the similarities. I would argue that the real Ablene has lost something. She has to watch an actress speaking about how a cockroach is blacker than she is and know that pretty much everyone who knows her thinks it's her. I agree that paying off someon who is demanding money for being portrayed in a book is bad precedent but I also think this writer crossed a line. It's not a matter of what the law is, it's a matter of what's right. If a writer lifts things from real life and doesn't bother to change them, I think she should be prepared for real life to reach out and slap her in the face.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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