Hey, remember last year when the estate of William Faulkner brought a lawsuit against Sony Pictures Classics for copyright infringement after Woody Allen’s literary 2011 comedy Midnight In Paris paraphrased a famous line consisting of nine words from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun as the set-up for an otherwise throwaway gag? No, of course you don’t, because the triumph of such a lawsuit would prove nonsensically restrictive to the dialogue that has existed between works of art since time immemorial, its ultimate defeat so foregone a conclusion that to commit even the generalities of the suit to memory would be a waste of grey matter that might be better used amassing quotations from Faulkner’s corpus with which to taunt the miserly spirit who brought the case in the first place. And so it went, with federal judge Michael Mills (not that one) this past Thursday agreeing with Sony that Allen’s nod to the author of The Sound and the Fury did indeed constitute fair usage so [INSERT HACKY JOKE ABOUT SOUND AND FURY SIGNIFYING NOTHING].
The Faulkner estate’s case that lifting nine words alone from a 286 page novel could constitute copyright infringement rested on its contention that those nine words deserve extra qualitative consideration as ‘[describing] the essence of Requiem‘. Mills proved sceptical in his refutation of that claim: ‘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.’
Mills noted too that ‘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.’ He also threw in a reference to Sharknado – ha ha no, but really, he did – thereby guaranteeing his ruling an eternal spot in the Smithsonian.
So that’s that. But let’s not get too comfortable in our free and easy quotation of literary classics. For after all, the past is never dead, it’s not even [INSERT HACKY JOKE ABOUT CENSORSHIP BY FAULKNER ESTATE].
He was chief hack and music editor of webzine Brazen from 2006 to 2010, and hosted Left of the Dial on Subcity Radio from 2008 to 2011.
He can be heard semi-regularly on the podcast of Scottish cultural blog Scots Whay Hae ('20th best website in Scotland!' - The List), and in 2011 founded Seen Your Video, a film and music podcast and blog based in Glasgow. He has a Masters degree in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow that will never have any practical application. You are on a hiding to nothing if you follow him on Twitter expecting any kind of hot publishing scoop.