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For many Woody Allen fans, “Midnight in Paris” is a delightfully novel fantasy, deserving of the finest cinematic accolades. The William Faulkner estate, however, sees things very differently. According to Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC, the Academy Award-winning film infringes the estate’s copyright to one of Faulkner’s most famous quotes–and misleads audiences in the process.
In the book Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Owen Wilson’s character paraphrased this quote in “Midnight in Paris.” Wilson stated: “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past.” He further clarified: “You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”
Because of Wilson’s ten little words (which were attributed to the deceased author), Faulkner Literary Rights sued Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of the film. Faulkner’s estate claims that the use of the quote is a copyright violation. The estate requests damages, profit disgorgement, attorney fees and costs from Sony.
While Sony did not obtain a license to use Faulkner’s quote, the company claims that the entire lawsuit is frivolous because the quote constitutes fair use in the film. Under copyright law, the fair use doctrine offers an exception to a copyright owner’s exclusive right to his work, allowing limited use of the copyrighted material without the owner’s permission. According to the Copyright Act:
“In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
Under the fair use doctrine, non-commercial uses of copyrighted works are generally more permissible than commercial uses. However, commercial use of material does not necessarily negate a fair use defense–particularly when the owner of the copyrighted material is not economically harmed by the subsequent use.
Does Sony’s fair use argument seem warranted in this case? Was the Faulkner estate really harmed by the use of Faulkner’s quote in “Midnight in Paris”? If so, how?