Roused from its afternoon slumber in a fantasia of the southern USA from the days when the air smelled of magnolias and fair use was as alien a concept as civil rights, the estate of William Faulkner has brought a lawsuit against Sony Pictures Classics for what it claims is a copyright infringing line of dialogue in Woody Allen’s Sony-released 2011 film Midnight In Paris.
The film sees Owen Wilson travel in time to 1930s Paris and encounter several contemporary authors and artists, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali, but not Faulkner. The Faulkner estate’s complaint lies not in his being spurned even though Sam Elliott could have taken a very good shot at him, but in Wilson’s paraphrasing of Faulkner’s famed Requiem for a Nun epigram ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ In Allen’s film, Wilson 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.’ At least if you thought you were the only one who didn’t find Midnight in Paris that funny, you know you’re not alone any more.
The Faulkner estate claims in the suit that ‘The use of the infringing quote and of William Faulkner’s name in the infringing film is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive the infringing film’s viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand’, and is asking for ‘damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorney fees.’
Nobody has, as yet, pointed out to the Faulkner estate that anyone who is likely to confuse a throwaway joke in a 2011 film for an endorsement of its parent studio by the long-dead author of Absalom! Absalom! probably isn’t going to be reading the work of their esteemed forebear any time soon.
Sony, for its part, is optimistic, saying in a statement: ‘This is a frivolous lawsuit and we are confident we will prevail in defending it. There is no question this brief reference (10 words) to a quote from a public speech Faulkner gave constitutes fair use and any claim to the contrary is without merit.’
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