Someone asked online the other day if he can be sued for novelizing a "secret" someone told him. As usual, Queenie was there to muddy the waters. I hope I helped to clear them. Here's what I said.
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Please forgive the Queen of Wrong for she knows not what she does. Or, apparently, says. Of course you can get sued for writing a novel based upon a secret someone told you. You can get sued for crossing the street in rush hour or drying your socks on a line in plain view of the public. In fact, you can get sued for damned near anything, including for telling someone you can't get sued!
That doesn't mean you should sit around stewing about every single thing you do. Being sued is common. Being sued successfully is another matter.
In the case that you mentioned, even if the person who told you a secret sues you, he or she won't prevail in court. That's because there is no legal precedent of which I am aware that makes spilling the beans an illegal act. Now, is it morally reprehensible? Sure. Does the person who shares the secret lack moral integrity? Probably, depending upon the secret. If the person told you in confidence that his brother is planning on blowing up a grade school next Tuesday, for instance, you would be morally obligated to notify the authorities. Whether or not you write about it afterward would be strictly a matter between you and your conscience. It's a case of protecting the greater good: In this case, that means saving lives above keeping secrets.
Another mitigating point in fact: If you write a novel "based" upon a secret, you're not technically revealing the actual secret, are you? Novelization is the very commonly employed act of taking a fact, revising (changing) it to make for more interesting reading, and then publishing it as fiction. Repeating something someone told you is not in itself an illegal act, and it's certainly not covered by copyright. If you take your friend's secret and rework it in writing so that it's not a verbatim regurgitation of that secret, you're not really sharing that specific secret, are you? Therefore, you're not even committing moral turpitude.
For example, if someone tells you in strict confidence that his mother and father were never legally married and you write a story about an unmarried couple using fictionalized settings, dialogue, and characters, I don't think anyone can fault you morally for doing so. Ideas come from all over. When someone tells you a secret, the expectation is that you won't reveal that exact information.
And, no, to answer your next question, you can't be found guilty in a court of law for sharing an idea or for repeating a conversation except under extraordinary circumstances that may restrict you from revealing such information. A military secret, for example, or some corporation's proprietary information come to mind.
So, do ignore the bad response Queenie gave you and think about the situation before deciding to take action. If you reveal the exact information given to you in confidence, can you be sued? Of course. Will the plaintiff be successful? Undoubtedly not. The only question remaining then is one of morality. And when it comes to answering that, only you can come up with a response.
Any more concerns? Consult an attorney. Until then ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs weekly at Substack. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he's only human!)