Faulkner Estate Sues Sony Pictures Because Owen Wilson Quoted Nine Words (Incorrectly)

from the permission-culture dept

Wow. We’ve heard about all sorts of crazy copyright lawsuits, but every so often you get one that just makes you sit back and wonder at the amazing chutzpah it must have taken for a lawyer to actually go forward and file a case. This is one of those times. The estate of William Faulkner, Faulkner Literary Rights LLC, has sued Sony Pictures Classics and a bunch of movie distributors over the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris.

At one point in the movie the lead character, played by Owen Wilson, misquotes a nine-word William Faulkner quote. Quoting directly from the lawsuit:

In describing his experiences, Pender speaks the following lines (the “Infringing Quote”): “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.”

The Infringing Quote is taken from a passage in the William Faulkner book “Requiem for a Nun” (“the Book”), where it reads: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (“the Original Quote”).

The lawsuit points out that the book first was registered with the copyright office in 1951 and it was renewed in 1979. I don’t think anyone doubts that the copyright on the book is legit — but, seriously? He quoted nine words (really eight if you drop one for the error in the quote). This has to qualify as either de minimis use or fair use, at the very least. And, seriously, what kind of harm does the Faulkner estate really think happened here? The filing misstates the nature of copyright law, arguing that it has the exclusive right to reproduce or distribute the quote — completely ignoring fair use or de minimis use as possibilities that push back on that “exclusive right.”

Beyond that, they try an even more ridiculous argument, dropping into the Lanham Act (trademark law) claiming (ridiculously):

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 perceived affiliation, connection or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand.

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 the origin, sponsorship or approval of Sony’s goods, services, or commercial activity by William Faulkner and/or his written works.

To which we can only think to ask… who, exactly, could possibly be confused by this? Seriously. Faulkner died in 1962. I don’t think anyone thinks he’s officially affiliated with the movie. Hell, even if he was alive, we’re talking about eight words misquoted.

Oh, and did we mention that the Faulkner estate claims that Sony’s actions here were malicious, fraudulent, deliberate and/or willful. Or, you know, perhaps it just knows that quoting 8 words from William Faulkner doesn’t infringe a damn thing. Later, they argue that the use of Faulkner’s name was “grossly negligent.” Because, you know, mentioning actual human beings without their permission is against the law… other than the fact that it’s not.

Even the awesome folks over at Courthouse News, who tend to be a “just the facts” kind of organization couldn’t resist adding some commentary on this particular case:

Although Courthouse News customarily refrains from commenting upon litigation in the story in which the lawsuit is reported, and at risk of offending the shade, or estate, of Charles Dickens: This is a far, far weirder thing than Sony has ever done.

As we’ve described in the past, the insurance companies that back movie productions are notoriously risk averse on IP things, and they have lawyers trained in this kind of thing go through movies bit by bit to make sure every possible bit of copyright or trademark issue has clearance or they won’t approve errors and omissions insurance (E&O). They take this process pretty seriously (quite often too seriously). If this bit got through that process unscathed, it seems likely that Sony (and its insurers) are quite confident that this sort of thing is completely legit.

Hopefully Sony Pictures doesn’t wimp out and pay the Faulkner Literary Rights folks to go away. This is a case worth fighting, and you’d have to hope that Sony recognizes that it’s quite likely to succeed in court.

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Companies: faulkner literary rights, sony pictures

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Comments on “Faulkner Estate Sues Sony Pictures Because Owen Wilson Quoted Nine Words (Incorrectly)”

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59 Comments
Beta (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They should at least get a dirty look from the judge for naming it “the Infringing Quote”, and the film “the Infringing Film”, when they haven’t yet proved any such thing.

This kind of language may be common practice in law, for all I know, but it’s deliberately confusing at best. If I were council for the defense I’d be seriously tempted to start with “Your Honor, the defendant (hereafter to be known as “the Innocent Defendant”) in this suit (“the Frivolous Lawsuit”) brought by the council (“the Incompetent Lawyers”) for the plaintiff (“the Feckless Parasites”)…

Yeah, I can see why I wouldn’t get far as a lawyer.

Anonymous Coward says:

i dont know nor do i care whether this case goes to court or not nor do i care which side wins. what i find very frustrating is that this law suit, maybe quite rightly, i dont know, is condemned as being ridiculous. tell me how many ridiculous law suits have been filed by Sony and companies just as big, simply because they have the financial muscle to do so that scares the shit out of some poor, innocent individual for doing something unintentional that isn’t liked by those companies? this whole ‘you did this, i dont like it so because i have more money than you, i am suing you’ has gotten out of hand. what has got to happen to make companies respect each other and customers more than at the moment? a complete boycott of everything except essentials?

Scott says:

Re: Re:

The funniest thing is, if they win this, and continue winning cases like this, they’ll probably go after schools and libraries next, and eventually their IP will be worthless, because nobody will know who he was or what he did.

I’d love to see copyright reverted to an earlier state. Say 10 or 20 years and not transferable (except to a widow) and non-renewable. And not attributable to corporate entities beyond limited partnerships.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Hee! All jokes aside, I actually get the feeling Shakespeare would have approved of Star Trek: TOS. He loved bombast and over-the-top, larger than life characters. And you can’t say Shatner didn’t pronounce his lines trippingly on the tongue.

When the DS9 people inserted their guys into the fight scene in their tribbles crossover, they remarked on how theatrical the original actors’ moves were and had to adjust their staging by opening up the new fighters’ arm-swings, having them reel back more exaggeratedly. Shakespeare would have understood that type of acting.

out_of_the_blue says:

Actually, the copyright is NOT "legit", should be expired.

“I don’t think anyone doubts that the copyright on the book is legit” — The unilateral extensions make it effectively forever, nor am I happy with it being inherited, that’s just silly: you can’t inherit someone’s actual work, nor inherit a right to make others pay indefinitely.

It’s a nuanced, thought-ed position that ACs and pirates may not grasp.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Actually, the copyright is NOT "legit", should be expired.

Nobody ever grasps what you say, not because it is exceptionally profound or complex, but because you say it in a way that makes any speaker of the English language wonder if your sentences should be qualified as simple murder or as a crime against humanity.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Actually, the copyright is NOT "legit", should be expired.

Depends on what point of view you are arguing for, which I’ll note you didn’t state, but the article talking about a lawsuit implies they are referring to the law’s point of view. From a legal point of view, nobody doubts that the copyright on the books is legit. Perhaps it’s not, but that’s going to require some one showing that Faulkner’s estate didn’t dot all their i’s and cross all their t’s.

From what point of view are you talking about?

kenichi tanaka says:

While I can see how absurd this is, William Faulkner is a well known author and I can understand how his estate wants to ensure that his works are not being re-interpreted or re-written differently.

I hope the Faulkner estate wins because if Hollywood is intent on making use of previously published material then they need to make sure that what they are using is being used in an appropriate manner.

Hollywood is always throwing copyright lawsuits out there and now they are on the receiving end of such a copyright lawsuit for using works of fiction in a manner that disrespects the original work.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I hope the Faulkner estate wins because if Hollywood is intent on making use of previously published material then they need to make sure that what they are using is being used in an appropriate manner.

No, they specifically and emphatically do not need to make sure they’re using his work in “an appropriate manner”. Such a requirement does not exist in law, and if it did would have widespread and alarming impacts on the ability to exercise free speech.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

1. evidently, you *can’t* see how absurd this is, or you wouldn’t have continued with your next clause…

2. *besides* the absolutely minimal quote (WHICH IS “WRONG”, *how* can they sue over a ‘wrong’ quote ? ? ? the mind boggles…); *besides* the transformative use; *besides* not knowing if in context it is a satire/parody of some sort; *besides* the moral/business dilemma of X number of generations after his death his heirs *still* milking his corpse; *besides* NO ONE ON THE PLANET being ‘confused’, or faulkner’s work being ‘diluted’ or ‘maligned’ in some fashion, WHO is ‘harmed’ by the NATURAL SHARING/QUOTING of OUR COLLECTIVE culture ? ? ?

3. i will point out this oh-so-minor factoid:
it is NOT disney who made (fill in the blank with ideas/movies stolen from OUR culture) popular and confers some sort of ‘value’ on it, it is SOCIETY as a whole who made it popular (for a multitude of reasons)…

it is NOT nike who made the swooshtika popular and gives it some sort of ‘value’, it is SOCIETY’s choices that made nike and the associated swooshtika ‘popular’ AND a part of our COLLECTIVE CULTURE…

it is NOT faulkner -and DEFINITELY not his parasitic heirs- who embraced his own writings and thought so highly of his own writing that it became popular, it is US as a society who chose his writings and made them popular and they became a part of our COLLECTIVE CULTURE…

write the greatest, most inspired, most meaningful, most beautiful novel in the world…
now, go put it in a drawer and see how far that gets your precious creation…

it is ONLY the SHARING and the public’s subsequent caring that confers ANY ‘value’ on those works, PERIOD…
WE give them value, not time-warner-disney-faulkner-etc…

oh, and yes, to the pedant in this thread, ‘quote’ is quite acceptable to use as a form of ‘quotation’…
you can quotation me on that…
hee hee hee

art guerrilla
aka ann archy
eof

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is a pretty rambling, disjointed, and annoyingly mis-capitalized post which I would normally only respond to in order to lament the failure of education. However, the phrase “parasitic heirs,” is so good that I think it should be applied automatically when speaking of the estate of any deceased artist.

As I get to the bottom of this terrible post, I realized that I was the pedant in question. So allow me to be pedantic.

Capitalize your sentences and proper names correctly. Quit randomly emphasizing words through full capitalization. If you start a list by numbering each point, don’t quit when you run out of numbers that you have memorized; it wouldn’t have taken you much effort to look up 4-8. One punctuation mark is sufficient to end a sentence; three implies a brain disorder. Wrapping a word in quotation marks to emphasis the word is stupid, unless you are trying to annoy Douglas Hofstadter by subverting the use/mean distinction. And lastly, though this is not an exhaustive list, “quote” as a noun is only acceptable if you’re talking to a contractor.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

1. urine idjit
B. upright writing written right is boring… i like to play with words and minds…
IV. please tell it to john dos passos and archy…
X. you have shown you value style over substance; thank you for outing yourself as an authoritarian…
Z. you gotta take the ‘parasitic heirs’ with the whacked out ellipsis…

totherwise, FOAD…

art guerrilla
aka ann archy
art guerrilla at windstream dot net
eof

JMT says:

Re: Re:

“I hope the Faulkner estate wins because if Hollywood is intent on making use of previously published material then they need to make sure that what they are using is being used in an appropriate manner.”

Why would you make such a ridiculous assertion without any form of explanation? How this use is inappropriate in any way whatsoever?

Leroy says:

Faulkner vs Sony

In a world where copyrighted software is hacked and the public wants everything for free, we have Woody Allen wanting his movie to be as high-end as possible, maybe hoping to sell some tickets and DVDs. Then we have Congress that decided all art would be public domain after a certain period of time, thereby guaranteeing free access to all. By creating an expiration date,, however, Congresd affirmed that prior to expiration, the art must be protected. If Woody could have written something better he would have. But since he wanted this quote. what’s wrong with Licensing it? Ron Howard used a short Faulkner quote to launch his new TV series on modern families.but Ron licensed it. No big deal. Stealing it would have been Avwhole ‘nother thing … Woody and Sony knew better – they just didn’t give a damn.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Faulkner vs Sony

public wants everything for free

Misleading and untrue as a blanket statement.

Then we have Congress that decided all art would be public domain after a certain period of time

Congress did not decide that. It’s the other way around — congress decided to grant limited-term monopolies to art. Public communication of any sort places the communication in the public domain by definition. It took a special law to restrain that.

If Woody could have written something better he would have.

Since he didn’t really quote Faulkner, he did write something different (better is a subjective determination), but let’s pretend it’s an accurate quote.

Typically, people quote famous figures not because the phrase is so well written that they couldn’t come up with something better, but because the importance of it is that the famous figure said it.

what’s wrong with Licensing it?

Nothing, if you want to. But it shouldn’t be necessary to pay money to make references to our cultural heritage. If it is, it means we have no real culture, only commerce.

Stealing it would have been Avwhole ‘nother thing

Nothing was stolen, even ignoring the whole copyright violation is not theft argument. Faulkner was credited, nobody is claiming his words as their own.

JMT says:

Re: Faulkner vs Sony

“what’s wrong with Licensing it?”

Licensing is so important it needs a capital L now?

A better question is why does Faulkner’s estate, who had zero productive input into his works, deserve any money if someone quotes his work? Don’t blah, blah about copyright law, tell us why they deserve an income for doing nothing. And for a bonus point, explain how that’s different to your incorrect claim that “the public wants everything for free”.

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