“Midnight in Paris,” William Faulkner and a case of apparent opportunism

July 26, 2013

Owen WilsonLast Thursday, a judge in Mississippi dismissed a copyright infringement case the estate of William Faulkner had brought against Sony Pictures over Woody Allen’s 2011 film “Midnight in Paris.”

Faulkner’s estate had sued over a line of dialogue spoken by Owen Wilson’s character. He says, “The past is never dead. Actually, it’s not even the past. You know who said that? Faulkner, and he was right.”

That’s a slight corruption of a line – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” — from Faulkner’s 1954 novel “Requiem for a Nun.” Faulkner’s estate claimed Sony should have paid for the right to use the line.

In his ruling, the judge declared that the use of the line was fair use, meaning it is a small and reasonable use of a copyrighted work without the author’s permission. He pointed out the nine-word line is a small portion of the novel, was used in a film rather than a book (so there was little chance of economic competition) and was attributed to Faulkner.

I wrote about this lawsuit when it was first filed, and even then, I was not quite clear on why Faulkner’s estate thought this was not fair use.

As the judge pointed out, the line is only a snippet of the 256-page “Requiem for a Nun” (or what’s smaller than a snippet? A tidbit?), and Wilson’s character does not try to pass the sentiment off as his own.

My guess is that, as many things do, this all came down to money.

“Midnight in Paris” is the biggest financial success of Allen’s four-decade career; it cost pocket change to make and wound up earning around $57 million in its theatrical run. In contrast, “Requiem for a Nun” was not one of Faulkner’s more successful works.

So, maybe Faulkner’s estate saw a chance here to leverage one of its minor assets in an effort to benefit from the success of “Midnight in Paris.” That may not be the case – who knows? In any event, Faulkner’s estate got skunked, so now the past might really be the past – when it comes to this lawsuit, anyhow.