Faulkner Heirs Lose Lawsuit Against Sony Pictures

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

Last year, we looked at a lawsuit filed by the heirs of William Faulkner, Faulkner Literary Rights LLC, and their lawsuit against Sony Pictures and Woody Allen for what they said was an illegal misappropriation of the Nobel-winning author’s words. On Thursday of last week, that suit was dismissed.

At issue was one of Faulkner’s most famous quotes, from his novel Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In Allen’s 2001 Academy Award winning film Midnight in Paris, the character played by actor Owen Wilson says, “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. I met him too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills, the author of a book called Twice Told Tombigbee Tales, dismissed the suit saying,

“The court has viewed Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, read the book Requiem for a Nun, and is thankful that the parties did not ask the court to compare The Sound and the Fury with Sharknado.”

He continued:

“At issue in this case is whether a single line from a full-length novel singly paraphrased and attributed to the original author in a full-length Hollywood film can be considered a copyright infringement. In this case, it cannot.”

Lee Caplin, who oversees the Faulkner estate, said in a telephone interview with the AP that the ruling “is problematic for authors throughout the United States,” and he’s consider what additional legal options might be available.

“We’re very disappointed in the judge’s ruling and we feel it’s not only wrong, it’s going to be damaging to creative people everywhere.”

The lawsuit had argued that using the famous line could confuse viewers “as to a perceived affiliation, connection, or association,” between Faulkner and Sony Pictures.

Mills didn’t see it that way. “The movie contains literary allusion, the name Faulkner and a short paraphrase of his quote, neither of which can possibly be said to confuse an audience as to an affiliation between Faulkner and Sony,” Mills wrote in a 17-page memorandum that accompanied the ruling.

At techdirt, Mike Mesnick had more to say about the ruling:

“Thankfully, the court wasted little time disabusing the estate of its rather laughable view of copyright law, doing a fair use analysis, and making it clear that this use qualifies as fair use. At points, the judge is clearly flabbergasted that the Faulkner estate even brought such a ridiculous lawsuit,” wrote Mesnick.

“Unfortunately, there is one problematic aspect to the ruling. Sony asked for the case to be dismissed both because of fair use and because of de minimis use — which is a separate legal doctrine, which suggests tiny snippets can be used without permission, having nothing to do with fair use. This has some importance, because of the (incorrect, in my opinion) argument made by some courts, that fair use is merely ‘a defense’ to infringement, rather than a right. This makes little sense if you read the actual statute but it is how some courts have interpreted fair use.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.