I am not an attorney and any comments I post are not intended, nor should they be construed, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult a legal expert who is familiar with the area of legal expertise you need.
This is a result of questions I see in various social media groups, especially Facebook. Appears there are a bunch of author attorney wannabes in those groups who have no real-life experience in dealing with the real world or the legal system when it comes to these issues. It’s amazing how many of these attorney wannabes don’t consider the potential liability they may face by giving such advice. If I were planning a book, movie, game, etc. and thought it would be “cute” to add something along these lines, I would find the most qualified attorney or law firm I could afford before doing it. See my comment about generic below as to how I would proceed.
If you are considering using any Celebrities, Politicians, Family, Friends, and Companies in your books, you are better off consulting an attorney or law firm familiar with these kinds of cases before you just assume all of the things I have seen posted in Facebook groups by people claiming to know the law or relying on court decisions that don’t apply.
For politicians, the bigger issue is you will probably lose more potential readers than you will gain as you will often lose those readers who aren’t supporters of a politician, but don’t appreciate you adding the politician to your book or book series.
For celebrities, it won’t matter if you paint them in what you think is a good light, or at least not too bad a light. They generally have much deeper pockets than you do which means you could get buried in enough legal paperwork to make it more trouble than it’s worth.
With companies, again deep pockets, plus contrary to what many attorney wannabes bloggers and Facebook posters think, the company may easily make a claim that a court will agree is valid.
Family and friends is more about potentially damaging a relationship although there are some family members and friends who would have no problem suing you. Having proof (police reports, etc.) may not be enough to get you out of a nasty lawsuit that you may lose.
The better solution is to go generic in such broad terms that it’s not obvious the individual, company, or product you are trying to highlight. When I say burger flipper, that’s pretty generic and could easily apply to tons of fast food and non-fast food restaurants out there. A reader may think you meant Chain XYZ regardless of which chain you were meaning. Where you run into problems if you include subtle or not so subtle hints that make it less fuzzy.
Often times, but not always, parodies may let you off the hook. However, as I was researching another country’s copyright law recently, the country has a history of ruling opposing ways on parodies which makes doing them in that country a risky move. The flip side to parodies is you may actually generate dislike or problems towards you. I can think of a few people who tried parodies, only to have them backfire, and the backfire can go either way, against the person doing the parody or the person or company being parodied. In strange cases, both sides can get backlash.