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William vs Woody Allen as Faulkner estate sues director over two-line quote

Copyright action arising from a moment's dialogue in Midnight in Paris shows how carefully directors must tread
  • @guyadams

The sound and the fury of William Faulkner's prose is nothing compared to the racket being made by attorneys who represent the late writer's estate. They are suing Woody Allen, The Washington Post, and several major corporations, for allegedly infringing his copyright.

A series of claims filed in Mississippi last week by Faulkner Literary Rights LLC seeks compensation and damages from roughly 100 people and companies who, it claims, have profited from the illegal misappropriation of the Nobel Prize-winning author's oeuvre.

Among the defendants is Allen, whose 2011 film, Midnight in Paris, is targeted owing to a line spoken by Gil Pender, the character played by Owen Wilson. "The past is not dead!" it reads. "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."

Faulkner's estate says Allen should have asked permission for the phrase to be used. It is further peeved that he misquotes the writer's original line, which can be found in the 1950 book, Requiem for a Nun, and reads: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The lawsuit claims: "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 seeks "damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorney fees" from the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, and up to 100 as-yet-unnamed exhibitors who profited from screenings. Midnight in Paris, for which Allen won a screenwriting Oscar, made almost $160 million (£99 million) at the box office.

The legal action seems curious since copyright does not usually apply to the "fair use" of quotations. And US free speech laws make it tricky to censor artistic expression.

"This is a frivolous lawsuit and we are confident we will prevail," Sony told The Hollywood Reporter, which broke news of the suit. "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."

Faulkner Literary Rights LLC was founded by the writer's daughter, Jill Faulkner Summers, following his death in 1962. She died in 2008, and it is now managed by Lee Caplin, a film producer from Los Angeles, for the commercial benefit of his descendants.

In a second lawsuit, the estate is suing The Washington Post and defence contractor Northrop Grumman over a full-page advert that carried the Faulkner quote: "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it."

Although the advert correctly attributed the quote to a 1956 essay Faulkner wrote for Harper's magazine, Mr Caplin and his attorneys say it is "commercial appropriation", and cannot therefore be deemed fair use.

In an interview with a newspaper from Mississippi, where both lawsuits were filed, Mr Caplin said Faulkner was "never about money", but would have liked to be consulted before companies profited from his work.