Estate of William Faulkner sues for damages over 9 words
Lighting strikes twice in this case. Not only did a court get a fair use decision correct, but when you read the details, you’ll find yourself siding with a major motion picture company. From the Hollywood Reporter:
A federal judge in Mississippi declared victory on Thursday for Sony Pictures in a lawsuit brought by the owners of the rights to the literary works of the late William Faulkner.
The lawsuit contended that the film distributor violated Faulkner’s copyright and the Lanham Act by allowing a character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to quote a passage from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun.
Sony argued that the use was de minimis and a “fair use.”
Midnight in Paris features a protagonist played by Owen Wilson who travels to Paris and finds himself spending time with literary greats including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
In the film, Wilson describes his fantastic experiences. He says, “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”
In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In terms of the purpose and character of the use, the judge notes “the copyrighted work is a serious piece of literature lifted for use in a speaking part in a movie comedy, as opposed to a printed portion of a novel printed in a newspaper, or a song’s melody sampled in another song. This transmogrification in medium tips this factor in favor of transformative, and thus, fair use.”
As for the substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work, the Faulkner literary estate attempted to argue that the “Quote describes the essence of Requiem,” and as such deserved some extra credit for its qualitative importance.
But the judge responds, “Qualitative importance to society of a nine-word quote is not the same as qualitative importance to the originating work as a whole. Moreover, it should go without saying that the quote at issue is of miniscule quantitative importance to the work as a whole. Thus, the court considers both the qualitative and quantitative analyses to tip in favor of fair use.”
As a lay person, what seems particularly egregious about this case is that Woody Allen, the film’s writer
and director, actually “cited” Faulkner, crediting him with the words. Further, the quote is actually a paraphrase.
What’s especially baffling is what the Faulkner estate hoped to accomplish in such a suit. Given how frivolous it was, it doesn’t exactly make them look particularly good. As for whether or not the use of the quote in the movie hurt their investment, I think the judge got it right:
Judge Mills is also doubtful that the market for Faulkner’s work is going to be harmed by Midnight in Paris, and in fact theorizes that is more likely “the film indeed helped the plaintiff and the market value of Requiem if it had any effect at all.”