I missed this initially, but a few months ago, a federal judge in Mississippi nixed a lawsuit brought by the heirs of William Faulkner. In dispute was the claim that “Woody Allen’s 2011 film ‘Midnight in Paris’ [had] improperly used one of William Faulkner’s most famous lines.” The librarian in me was pleased with the outcome but ticked that the suit was filed in the first place.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner wrote in the book, ‘Requiem for a Nun.’ “In the movie, 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.'”
Read the judge’s ruling. The Faulkner heirs claimed violation of copyright law but SONY Pictures, the defendant, claimed the Fair Use provision in the law, and, “alternatively, argued that the use of a quote was non-infringing under the de minimis doctrine (essentially a taking too small to rise to the level of infringement).”
Factor 1: Purpose and Character. These were considered quite different media and intent (comic film v. serious book).
Factor 2: Nature of the Copyrighted Work. While the book is subject to copyright protection, the movie was “transformative,” i.e., significantly altered from the original.
Factor 3: Substantiality of the Portion Used in Relation to the Copyrighted Work as a Whole. “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.”
Factor 4: Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market for or Value of the Copyrighted Work. “[The court] interpreted the inclusion of the paraphrased quote in Midnight as actually helping Faulkner and ‘the market value of Requiem if it had any effect at all.’ The court also stated ‘how Hollywood’s flattering and artful use of literary allusion is a point of litigation, not celebration, is beyond this court’s comprehension.'”
The lawyer for the Faulkner literary estate, Lee Caplin, had also argued something called The Lanham Act, suggesting that the dialogue could confuse viewers “as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association” between Faulkner and Sony; the judge rejected this as well.
Caplin groused that the ruling “‘is problematic for authors throughout the United States” and “it’s going to be damaging to creative people everywhere.” If anything, had the ruling gone the other way, THAT would have created a chilling effect on everyone who might use a soupçon of copyrighted material.