July 23, 2013

Paying for the past: Woody Allen wins Faulkner lawsuit


“It’s going to be damaging to creative people everywhere,” said Lee Caplin, overseer of the Faulkner literary estate.  Was he referring to the activities of Amazon? Or the Penguin Random House merger? Nope. A crime far more insidious—Woody Allen lifting a nine-word phrase from Requiem for a Nun and dropping it in his film Midnight in Paris without dropping a coin in the Faulkner Literary Rights coffer, something the director got away with in a federal court ruling last Friday. Egregious! Here, creative people everywhere, have a tissue.

The Faulkner estate filed suit against Sony Picture Classics in October. Owen Wilson spoke the offending phrase. His character in the film declares earnestly, “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. I met him too. I ran into him at a dinner party.” It’s a rough quote. The original reads, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Claiming copyright infringement, the Faulkner estate argued that the “quote describes the essence of Requiem.” The past is certainly a recurring theme. As one character realizes,

…you – everyone – must,or anyway may have to, pay for your past; the past is something like a promissory note with a trick clause in it which, as long as nothing goes wrong, can be manumitted in an orderly manner, but which fate or luck or chance, can foreclose on you without warning.

But Judge Michael Mills found the Faulkner estate interpretation wanting. He stated:

Qualitative importance to society of a nine-word quote is not the same as qualitative importance to the originating work as a whole. Moreover, it should go without saying that the quote at issue is of miniscule quantitative importance to the work as a whole. Thus, the court considers both the qualitative and quantitative analyses to tip in favor of fair use.

Mills also noted that “the film indeed helped the plaintiff and the market value of Requiem if it had any effect at all.” Don’t worry, Caplin—in the wake of this catastrophe, creative people everywhere will be just fine.



Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.