Faulkner estate claims that quoting his novels in films is both a trademark and copyright infringement

A reader writes, "A character in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris quoted nine words from William Faulkner, with attribution. Faulkner Literary Rights LLC has responded a year later with a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement and attempts to deceive viewers into thinking Requiem for a Nun is a game for the PS3. Or something." The suit's major claims seem to turn on trademark (though there are copyright claims in there, too): the Faulkner estate claims that a movie that quotes Faulkner and has a character who meets various historical people (including Faulkner) "is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive the infringing film's viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand."


  1. Why are people so ignorant that they think attribution is a magic wand that will make copying without permission suddenly no longer against the law?

    PROTIP: if you want to avoid the butthurt, read the law before you break it. Then consult a local attorney.

      1. And the quote is relevant. “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry”
        While an author is alive, they cannot be too evil, because their reputation matters. They need people to voluntarily buy more books. But once they die, their estate can be as evil as it likes: its only job is to use lawyers to bleed as much money from society as possible. This creates such a barren and poisonous culture that even the undertaker is sorry.

    1. Did you notice that “major claims seem to turn on trademark“? A totally different area of law. Why are people so ignorant?

      Yes, attribution is biggest in plagiarism  which is really something totally orthogonal to any legally enshrined ‘intellectual property’; and it isn’t relevant to copyright cases; but it could easily be a factor in a trademark claim.

      The big kicker with trademark is deceptive use. As much as they fantasize to the contrary, trademark holders don’t get to control all uses of their trademark, only the ones that are deemed deceptive for trade purposes(this is why generics are perfectly free to have “Compare to Product(tm)” on the label. In this case, the estate is going to have to advance the stunningly insane claim that making a movie with a character that does something people do fairly routinely, quoting an author and name-dropping him, is a deceptive claim of relationship between the studio making the movie and the author….

      That’s just so nutty it’s hard to put into words.

    2. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between trolling and sarcasm… I think troll, but I’ve been wrong before. Obviously you’d have to be a fucking moron to consider 9 attributed words from a novel ‘copying without permission’, so it’s definitely not a serious comment. Did I miss the joke here?

    3. OK, as I don’t have the time or patience to understand the entire US copyright act (and I’ll bet you don’t either!) here’s one section that does seem to be fairly clear, although it also makes it clear that there is a fair bit of interpretation that needs to happen on any case:

      § 107 . Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

      Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. 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.

      The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

      So, it is clear that the work is of a commercial nature, so (1) isn’t going to provide much defence.

      (2) I’ll admit I’m hazy about the interpretation of this section, but I imagine the fact that the work in question is a novel and that people quote novels regularly, and that is in fact what is happening in the scene in question.. well you get where I’m going with this. However I admit I could be misinterpreting this particular clause.

      (3) This part is very relevant, as we’re discussing 9 words out of a book that runs at 286 pages.

      (4) This section is also seems pretty relevant. Is anyone likely to watch “Midnight in Paris” and decide Faulkner is no longer worth reading because they’re heard Owen Wilson misquote one line out of one book and they’ve got their Faulkner fix? I doubt it. I doubt the single line, misquote would have any noticeable effect on Faulkner reading at all, but if there is any effect, I’m guessing it would be positive.

  2. The quote as it appears in Midnight in Paris:

    “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner.”

    The quote from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    With the use of “Actually” and “not” in place of “never” they only share eight words in common, not nine, and you could argue it’s a paraphrasing rather than a quote.

    1. True, but when I read about this elsewhere that’s in the suit, too — something about being inaccurate and therefore distorting. Go figure.

      1.  Oh, so by quoting him inaccurately, they say it’s going to harm the William Faulkner brand? Interesting idea.

        1. Oh, so by quoting him inaccurately, they say it’s going to harm the William Faulkner brand?

          If the brand’s intention is to make money, William Faulkner harmed the brand when he wrote The Sound and the Fury.

      2. Christ, that is called making a movie realistic. People misquote all the god damn time. This case is nothing but a blatant money and attention grab.

  3. I don’t see how it falls under copyrights. I mean they could have left Faulkner’s name out of it completely and just said that and they would have a hard time standing up in court. I don’t think they are going to side with the estate. All this does is increases public perception of Faulkner books (which I realize is a popular novelist, but how many people are going to see a story like this then suddenly need to “read up on the source” my bet is a ton). 

    1.  Hmmm, a ton of people  – that’s 907.185 kg.  Average human weight is 62kg, that’d give us about 14.6 people will want to “read up on the source” then.  Perhaps that fractional one will have multiple personalities.

  4. I wish I knew Faulkner well enough to write a fantastic parodical response in his style.

    But I don’t. So fuck his descendants, and their lawyers.

    That is my maturity level this evening.

    Alternately: fine. Let us never mention Faulkner, or any three words he placed in a row, ever again.

    I don’t even like Sony.

    1.  Having read The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and the short story Barn Burning, I’m just fine with no one ever mentioning Faulkner ever again.  Even A Rose For Emily is so full of ridiculous amounts of acceptance on the part of the other characters that the work itself is ridiculous as a premise.

      Come to think of it, “The Sound and the Fury” as an expression is corrupted from “…sound and fury…” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  So screw the Faulkner Estate.  He died fifty years ago.  If I controlled copyright rules, his works would be in the public domain already, and probably would have been for the last ten to twenty years.

      1. I’m with you. I’ve read all of Faulkner for a project in college, and I didn’t like any of it. There were a few interesting parts and themes, but overall? Yaaaaaaawn.

  5. So, a character in a play uses a qoute from a book to prove a point, and the book’s author’s estate wants to sue?  I think someone misinterpreted the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad press!

    1. Like these idiots are going to get any press. There’s a reason they sued for a Woody Allen movie. The case doesn’t need merit if the cost of settling is cheaper than the cost of beating it in court, and the studio that produced this movie will just choose the smaller line item.

      1. Or the zero line item, by just sending a few letters and threaten a countersuit or something uncreative and lawyerly.

  6. In a way the Faulkner estate is almost refreshingly direct in it’s money grubbing.
    Does this seem fantastically stupid to me?  Why yes it does.  On the other hand the people they are sticking it to belong to the industry that brought us SOPA and PIPA.

    So…  Hmm…   Fuck’em both!

  7. This is not an innocent mistake on the faulkner estate’s part.   Their entire job is to shakedown and extort as much money as possible from as many targets as possible using whatever bullshit arguments they can sneak past a judge in some podunk copyright-troll county.

    1. Or as Matt noted, they just calculate who will settle out of court. Standard troll business plan.

  8. Maybe when an author dies, we need to bury the family as well.

    It’s the only way to be sure.

      1. And it worked. We remember Pharaohs as being mainly awesome, yet we remember Caesars (whose families were more visible) as mainly incompetent and corrupt.

  9. I wonder what this says about the state of the industry.  As with patent trolling, if you no longer have products that customers want, well, maybe you can pull in some revenue by shaking down other businesses.

    It’ll be interesting to see who’s the last standing once everyone’s done suing everyone else.

    Meanwhile, something to think about: when tort becomes a (non-productive) cost of doing business, the money to pay for it has to come from somewhere.  That would be you and me – IF we remain customers.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather that the money I spent went to develop new stuff I like.

    1. The thing is, in the US, ALL IP law is VERY heavily tilted in favor of the copyright and to a lesser extent trademark owner.
      It, so far, has nearly always been in profitable or at the very least break-even for an IP owner to sue. For any, little, or no reason.

      The government of the US has decided that the imaginary, intangible rights of IP owners (not creators mind) are more important and valuable than the entire global culture.

      There simply isn’t any point where tort becomes less profitable than “letting the damn dirty pirates” get away with even existing as citizens.

      And tort is already a non-productive cost to business in the case of patents. But there’s so much money dumped into maintaining the current horrific and utterly shit regime, that patent law is unlikely to change towards favoring innovators and product producers for years.

      We’re in a totally broken system, but those with the authority to fix it give their absolute trust to those who wish most to keep our IP system as it is and broaden its coverage simultaneously.

      As written on Techdirt a few days ago, the US and vloval IP system is equivalent to mercantilism. Governments have chosen industry groups to be economic, political and legal winners. And have chosen to make people who are creative the losers in the system, along with consumers and tbe people in general.

      This is no way to strengthen culture. It’s the recipe for mediocrity and cultural stagnation.

  10. When Warner Brothers attempted to sue the Marx Brothers for their film title “A Night in Casablanca” being too similar to “Casablanca”, this was Groucho’s response:

    “You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without permission. What about “Warner Brothers”? Do you own that too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about the name Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.”

    I am sure Woody is capable of a similar response.

  11. Maybe this is the start of a brilliant campaign to tie up the movie and music industry over specious copyright claims to show them how absolutely stupid it is.  If so, awesome! If not … I’m embarrassed for Faulkner that such idiots are protecting his legacy.

  12. The only way we can be sure we’re not infringing on the Faulkner estate’s IP is to never mention his books again, never tell anyone about them, certainly never review them and to pulp any existing copies in case someone accidentally breaks the law by reading it without signing a EULA.

    Surely they couldn’t complain about that?

  13. This smells a good bit more like lawyers bleeding money from the estate while patting the hand of some addled geriatric trustee than anything, but call it how you see it.

  14. Perhaps the Faulkner estate has been getting lessons from a certain novelist’s grandson. Grandpa’s work entered the public domain in most of world on 1/1/12 – so he probably has some time on his hands.

  15. Since no one has said it yet,

    Fair Use.

    Do they really think Sony Pictures’ Lawyers have never heard of it?

  16. It would be appropriate to make the frivolous filing of copyright calims punishable by public flogging.

  17. Copyright should die with the author.  Let the children and other parasites get jobs for themselves.

  18. The only surviving daughter of William Faulkner -Jill Faulkner Summers – died in 2008.  She was survived by her husband, Paul Summers Jr., a retired attorney.  They were married 53 years.  Jill and Paul have three sons.  Most of W. Faulkner’s manuscripts, personal papers, and personal library went to the University of Virginia.  The university was also given Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak.

    As far as I can tell from reading, Jill Faulkner saw almost nothing of her father growing up.  He kept a home in Oxford, Rowan Oak, and had a lot of family members depending on him financially, but was rarely home.  Perhaps the commenters here are assuming the his daughter had a more reverant and respectful relationship with her dad, than she actually had, much less her husband and children.  Faulkner had several affairs during his marriage.  He was a binge drinker.  I’m not inclined to pass judgement on his descendants or their motives.  There were alot of troubling issues in that family.

  19. What a bunch of hypocrites.  Below is the first paragraph from a New York Times article “Faulkner Linked to Plantation Diary Discovered” by Patricia Cohen February, 10 2010.

    ‘The climactic moment in William Faulkner’s 1942 novel “Go Down, Moses” comes when Isaac McCaslin finally decides to open his grandfather’s leather farm ledgers with their “scarred and cracked backs” and “yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink” — proof of his family’s slave-owning past. Now, what appears to be the document on which Faulkner modeled that ledger as well as the source for myriad names, incidents and details that populate his fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County has been discovered.”‘

    Here is a link to the full article:


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