Midnight in Paris: Faulkner Quote Dispute Now In The Past

 The following is written by Simon Pulman, an associate at Legal Advisory Board member Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard

Midnight in Paris: Faulkner Quote Dispute Now In The Past

Sony wins copyright victory in Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC v. Sony Pictures Classics Inc.

By Simon N. Pulman

After reading the book and watching the film at issue, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi granted Sony Picture Classics Inc.’s (“Sony”) motion to dismiss Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC’s (“Faulkner”) copyright infringement action based on a paraphrase of a nine word quote from a William Faulkner’s work in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (“Midnight”). The court easily found the use of a single line literary quote as part of the film’s dialogue transformative and a fair use.

The original quote at issue, said by a character in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (“Requiem”) is “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” InMidnight, Owen Wilson’s character Gil Pender, having returned back to the present day after time traveling to 1890s and 1920s Paris, states “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.”

Faulkner alleged claims under the Copyright Act as well as the Lanham Act. Defendant Sony moved to dismiss the copyright claim based on the fair use defense and, alternatively, argued that the use of a quote was non-infringing under the de minimis doctrine (essentially a taking too small to rise to the level of infringement), a matter of first impression for this court. The court analyzed the use of the quote under the four fair use statutory factors, finding these factors adequately addressed thede minimis analysis.

Factor 1: Purpose and Character

Addressing the first factor, the court found the “speaker, time, place, and purpose of the quote” in the two works to be “diametrically dissimilar.” In the Faulkner piece, the quote is a “weighty and somber” component of a work of serious literature, while in Midnight, the quote is part of a “comedic domestic argument.” Moreover, the court observed that the reference to the “past is not dead” bears literal meaning inMidnight because of its time traveling plotline.

The court also found the change of medium from “serious piece of literature” to “use in a speaking part in a movie comedy” to be relevant. It distinguished this from the printing of part of a novel in a newspaper or the sampling of a melody in a different song and stated that the “transmogrification in medium” tips the first factor in favor of fair use. Moreover, the court called the portion of the Faulkner work borrowed so “miniscule,” that it diminishes the significance of considerations such as commercial use that would disfavor fair use.

Factor 2: Nature of the Copyrighted Work

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