The true as the enemy of the good: Creative license and the ethical use of information

Image by Angeles Balaguer from Pixabay

I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about creative license and its implications for the ethical use of information.

Now, when information literacy instructors talk to students about the ethical use of information, we’re usually focusing on citation and plagiarism and academic honesty and issues like that because that’s what’s most relevant to the type of research that students do. Sometimes, in keeping with the “Information Has Value” frame from the ACRL Framework, we might dip into stuff about copyright or open access or Creative Commons. But for the most part we’re talking about giving proper credit to the sources you use for academic research.

Though it doesn’t come up a lot (at least in my teaching), I would think the ethical use of information also means representing the content of a source you’re citing accurately. There may be room for your own interpretation, of course, but in general it’s understood that you shouldn’t cherry pick bits and pieces of information from a source to suit your purposes or misrepresent the original author’s stance by taking a quote out of context or something like that. Because if you do those things, you risk doing real harm to the credibility of your work and your reputation as a scholar.

If cherry picking information would be frowned upon in scholarly, academic, and scientific research, creative license would be basically forbidden. Because creative license takes cherry picking a step further by allowing someone to twist or ignore information in order to suit their creative purposes.

Probably the most obvious example of this is in any movie or TV show (or novel, for that matter) that claims to be “based on a true story.” Because real life events don’t follow a neat story arc, it becomes necessary to bend facts in order to shape a compelling narrative (or to elide them altogether). Sometimes these are necessary or minor changes in order to streamline the story. Sometimes they’re changes that are so big that the finished product barely resembles the reality of the story it’s trying to tell.

The movie The Social Network springs to mind. The Social Network is based on the true story of how Facebook was founded but the whole thing is basically fiction. Aaron Sorkin actually stated as much: “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”

On the one hand, it’s easy to see his point. The Social Network may have little or nothing to do with how Facebook was actually founded but it’s a damn good story (one of my favorite movies, actually). It may only bear a passing resemblance to what actually happened but Sorkin manages to take the broad outline of the true story to explore some important and interesting themes. Isn’t that what fiction is meant to do?

Well, yeah. But The Social Network doesn’t portray itself as fiction. It portrays itself as being based on a true story. Which is not quite the same thing as saying it’s nonfiction, but it does give the audience a reasonable expectation that even if fidelity to the truth has been sacrificed in favor of storytelling, that what they’re about to see will still give them an understanding of an important event or the life of an important person.

Aaron Sorkin may not feel any obligation to tell the truth about what happened but is it ethical to fictionalize true events to the point where they are basically fiction and still tell people that what they’re seeing is a true story? This is an especially important question because a movie like this will shape the way people who see it understand the events that it portrays. This is true even of savvy moviegoers who know that the “based on the true story” label doesn’t actually mean anything.

So it seems like there should be an ethical responsibility here to make it clear the extent to which creative license is being taken. Yet there’s little or no expectation from either the audience or the creator of a work like that that this is the case. I mean, the fact that The Social Network is basically fiction is relatively common knowledge because it’s been called out for it so many times. But there are hundreds of movies and TV shows (and, again, books) that do the same thing but fly under the radar of critics and audiences. True, anyone who wants to know the real story can look it up afterward but how many people actually take that step?(1)

This all probably makes it sound like I think creative license is wrong or that movies like The Social Network should aspire to be documentaries (which are also subject to creative license in order to shape a narrative). I definitely don’t. Like I said, The Social Network is one of my favorite movies and there are plenty of others that I love which take liberties both big and small with the “true events” they supposedly portray.

I just wonder how a storyteller like Sorkin makes choices about how and when to use creative license and how they think about the ethical implications of those choices. Not just when something is based on a true story but whenever something is surfaced in the course of creative research that the creator feels doesn’t fit with the work they’re trying to create. When is it okay to ignore or elide the facts? When is it not? What ethical responsibility does the creator have to acknowledge those choices?

These are especially interesting questions when considering how much of our pop culture these days is the product of focus groups.

Anyway, as usual I don’t know the answer to these questions but I’d be interested in seeing what creative researchers have to say. Hopefully the next step in my own research will help me find out.


  1. It occurs to me as I’m writing this that the musical Hamilton would have been an even better example to use since that’s a piece of pop culture people are still interested in, more so than The Social Network. Unfortunately, The Social Network was what came to mind first and I don’t feel like going back and rewriting. That said, you can’t argue that Hamilton has had a huge impact on many people’s understanding of the life of its subject. You also can’t argue that Lin-Manuel Miranda took enormous liberties in telling that story. For more, check out this article from The New York Times, which not only identifies the aspects of the story where Miranda took the most creative license but also talks about how doing so actually helps to serve the meta theme of the musical.

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