Thursday, October 29, 2009

If You Libel, You May Be Liable

A publisher says -- and news outlets are repeating -- that the release of a tell-all book about the NBA by Tim Donaghy, the former referee who ended up in prison after a betting scandal, was canceled because of "concerns over potential liability."

The concept that the Triumph Books representative had in mind, I believe, was "libel."

Because "liable" and "libel" sound a lot alike, people seem to confuse them, or at least think they're related. It's not uncommon to hear a copy editor say something like "If we say he was arrested for murder, we'll be liable!"

The words are not related, etymologically. They are related only in the sense that the loser of a libel suit may be legally liable to pay damages. (Not the same thing as damage, but that's another rant.)

In other words, the publisher was right to be concerned about liability, but its immediate concern should have been libel.


Drew said...

I doubt the publisher cares a whit if the author is sued for libel; I think what they care about is their potential liability in the case that the author is convicted.

Stuart Langridge said...

My inclination here is that "liable" is actually what they meant, in the sense that they, the publisher, would be liable for something unspecified. You respond to them: whaddya mean, liable? Liable for what? And they come back, jeez, I don't know, who do I look like, a lawyer? Feels like we could take it in the shorts from the law somehow, though. That last sentence there is the definition of what "liable" means, I think; whether you're liable to prosecution for libel, or for prosecution for some other crime that you don't even know the name of, or liable to get a kicking're liable for something. Better lawyer up.