A nine-word quotation from William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun used in the movie Midnight in Paris did not violate either the Copyright Act or the Lanham Act, a Mississippi judge has ruled.
Woody Allen’s 2011 movie featured Owen Wilson as a screenwriter on vacation with his fiancée in Paris. At the stroke of midnight, Wilson’s character is repeatedly transported back to the 1920s, where he mingles with notable historical figures, such as Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.
Back in the present, he gets in a fight with his fiancée, accusing her of having an affair. When she says that the man is part of her past, Wilson retorts: “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 actual quote reads: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner’s estate filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Lanham Act and the Copyright Act based on the slightly altered quote.
But U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills – noting that he watched the movie and read the book – tossed the suit. A single line from a full-length novel paraphrased and attributed to the original author in a full-length Hollywood film cannot be considered a copyright infringement, he said.
Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed the film, made a successful fair use defense, Judge Mills determined, in large part because of how it transformed the use of the quote. “The speaker, time, place, and purpose of the quote in these two works are diametrically dissimilar,” he wrote. “[A] weighty and somber admonition in a serious piece of literature set in the Deep South has been lifted to present day Paris, where a disgruntled fiancé” uses the phrase “in a comedic domestic argument.” Lifting a phrase from a serious piece of literature for a speaking part in a comedy creates a transmogrification of medium that “undoubtedly ‘adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.’”
The estate contended that although brief, the quotation at issue described the essence of Requiem and was of qualitative importance. However, Judge Mills said the quote constituted only a small portion of the expression of the idea of not being able to leave the past behind, the central theme in Faulkner’s work. “Qualitative importance to society of a nine-word quote is not the same as qualitative importance to the originating work as a whole,” he explained.
Turning to the effect of the movie’s use of the quote on the potential market or value for the original work, the court found it “highly doubtful that any relevant markets have been harmed by the use in Midnight.”
“How Hollywood’s flattering and artful use of literary allusion is a point of litigation, not celebration, is beyond this court’s comprehension,” Judge Mills wrote. “The court, in its appreciation for both William Faulkner as well as the homage paid him in Woody Allen’s film, is more likely to suppose that the film indeed helped the plaintiff and the market value of Requiem if it had any effect at all.”
The court noted that other than a statutory entitlement to an award, the estate had not pled any additional injury. While the plaintiff wanted to present evidence that Sony had obtained permission to use other cited works in the movie – such as Pablo Picasso’s artwork and a Cole Porter song – the court said such evidence was irrelevant to whether the Faulkner quote was fair use and distinguished the artwork and song, which were used in their entirety, unlike the “fragment” of Requiem used.
Similarly, the estate’s Lanham Act claims failed. “The movie contains literary allusion, the name Faulkner and a short paraphrase of his quote, neither of which can possibly be said to confuse an audience as to an affiliation between Faulkner and Sony,” Judge Mills wrote. “Allusion is not synonymous with affiliation, nor with appropriation. [The plaintiff] has not provided any precedent suggesting that the mere use of a celebrity name in an artistic work somehow rises to the level of deception.”
To read the decision in Faulkner Literary Rights v. Sony Pictures Classics, click here.
Why it matters: While the court noted the “miniscule amount borrowed,” it wasn’t the brevity of the quote used that carried Sony’s argument. Instead, the court found that the first factor of the copyright infringement analysis – the purpose and character of the use – was so transformative it tipped the scales against Faulkner’s estate. From the medium of works to the “diametrically dissimilar” speaker, time, place, and purpose of the quote in the two works, the court found this factor “tip[ped] the scales in such heavy favor of transformative use that it diminishes the significance of considerations such as commercial use that would tip to the detriment of fair use.”