1882 edition of Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott (1834) by James Hogg, an early unauthorized biography.
1882 edition of Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott (1834) by James Hogg, an early unauthorized biography.

An unauthorized biography is a biography written without the subject's permission or input.[1] The term is usually restricted to biographies written within the subject's lifetime or shortly after their death; as such, it is not applied to biographies of historical figures written long after their deaths.[2]

Other names

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Unauthorized biographies marked for revealing scandalous or embarrassing content are often called tell-alls, especially if they take the form of memoirs; tell-all biographies written by friends or family members of the subject are sometimes called kiss-and-tells. Due to the potential stigma associated with the phrase "unauthorized biography", unauthorized biographies written by journalists and intended to present a fairer portrait of the subject are sometimes called investigative biographies.


Unauthorized biographies may be considered more objective but less reliable than other biographies, because they are not subject to the subject's (subjective) approval (and therefore may contain accurate information that the subject would not have authorized), but are also not privy to information or corrections known only to the subject or the subject's close friends and family.[3]


The subjects of unauthorized biographies are almost always public figures.[4] Rarely do public figures succeed in preventing the release of unauthorized biographies.[5] Unauthorized biographies of people who are not deemed public figures may be considered violations of the right to privacy and subject to legal action.[6] As Ted Schwarz (1992) writes:

Interesting people totally unknown to the general public are usually considered private individuals, even when married to someone famous. Writing about them without their permission may be considered invasion of privacy, a situation that seldom arises with politicians, entertainers, and others who are obvious public figures.[4]

Speaking of U.S. courts, Lloyd Rich (2002) writes:

Courts maintain a strong duty to protect First Amendment speech as they have an overriding concern and fear that placing "prior restraints" on speech could lead to a "chilling effect" on other speech. Because of this deference to the First Amendment and the presumption against prior restraints, a court will usually not permit an injunction that prevents the publication and/or distribution of an unauthorized biography but instead will only permit monetary damages to be awarded to remedy the unlawful acts of the author and publisher.[5]

The legality of unauthorized biographies varies by country. Brazil enacted a short-lived law in 2014 requiring permission from biographies' subjects before publication.[7][8][9]


Unauthorized biographies are not necessarily unwelcomed by their subjects, and in fact some unauthorized biographies have been criticized for displaying overeager admiration for them;[10][11] however, unauthorized biographies have a wider reputation for fueling controversy and painting unflattering portraits of their subjects.[12]

While unauthorized biographies often receive significant news coverage, their writers tend to face "media disdain" due to the perception that their work is gossipy, voyeuristic, and busybodyish.[13]



  1. ^ Reitz 2014; Berger 2016, p. 268; Klems 2009.
  2. ^ Reitz 2014; Hoberman 2001, p. 111.
  3. ^ Reitz 2014; Stall, Harry & Spalding 2004, p. 288; Berger 2016, p. 268; Goodall 2018; Margolis 2010.
  4. ^ a b Schwarz 1992, p. 503.
  5. ^ a b Rich 2002.
  6. ^ Schwarz 1992; Rich 2002.
  7. ^ Marques, Simone (2014). "Brazil's Banned Biographies: When Public Figures Want to Control the Message". X Index. Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  8. ^ "Brazil Ends Controversial Ban on Unauthorised Biographies". ABC. 2015. Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  9. ^ "Brazil Overturns 'Ban' on Unauthorised Biographies". BBC News. 2015. Retrieved May 4, 2019.
  10. ^ Peck, Gustav (1950). "Review: John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography". The American Political Science Review. 44 (4): 1019–1021. doi:10.2307/1951307. JSTOR 1951307.
  11. ^ Widmer, Kingsley (1979). "Review: Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller – An Unauthorized Biography by Jay Martin". Criticism. 21 (3): 279–281. JSTOR 23102638.
  12. ^ Hoberman 2001, p. 111; Stall, Harry & Spalding 2004, p. 288.
  13. ^ Hoberman 2001; Kelley 2010; Vincent 2010; Scott 1996.


See also