If we had any doubt that, as William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead,” this news should put our doubts to rest.
In a lawsuit dripping with irony, William Faulkner’s estate is suing Sony Pictures for a 10-word line in the 2011 Woody Allen film, “Midnight in Paris,” for what it claims is unauthorized use of a line from the late Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” published more than 60 years ago.
In the movie, modern-day Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, is transported to the past, where he mingles with literary greats of yore. After one such scene he states, “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.” He goes on, “You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”
The original line appeared in Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” published in 1950. It states, “The past is ever dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner Literary Rights, the company that controls the late author’s works, said Thursday that those 10 words uttered by Wilson’s character violates copyright and that Sony Pictures did not seek permission to use the quote.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the suit charges, “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.”
It asks for “damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorney fees.”
As Australia’s The Age reports, “[This] sort of frivolous and somewhat ironic legal action ... would seem more at home in an Allen movie than about it.”
Forget the fact that the quote is paraphrased, that it’s only 10 words long, and that the author is attributed (all of which would suggest the quote is covered by fair use).
The suit alleges that “audiences – at least those who even remember the single line of dialogue that references Faulkner in the centre of a film that features far more heavily at least a dozen famous creative names – are so finely attuned to the nuances of dialogue but so wilfully obtuse about the workings of a Hollywood script, that they will believe Faulkner and/or his estate signed on to the film,” reports The Age. “Moreover, the massive contribution that one line of dialogue had to the film entirely warrants a chunk of the profits.”
The film, which was released nearly a year and a half ago, follows a modern-day Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) as he travels back in time to the roaring ‘20s, where he mingles with some of the period’s great American authors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and yes, Faulkner.
More to the point, “Midnight in Paris,” is Woody Allen’s highest-grossing film, with box office returns of $151 million worldwide, according to Vanity Fair.
On Friday, Sony said in a statement “This is 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.”
Somewhere, Faulkner must be laughing at the irony of it all.