Sony’s Lawsuit Over Faulkner Quote Comes to an End

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On Thursday, Sony Pictures (NYSE:SNE) won the lawsuit over using a quote from William Faulkner’s work in one of its movies, Midnight in Paris. The lawsuit, brought by the owner’s of Faulkner’s works in a Mississippi federal court, argued that use of the quote violated the Latham Act and Faulkner’s copyright.

The quote was from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and was only nine words. During the lawsuit, Sony argued that including the quote in the movie was “fair use” and de minimis.

In the book, Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Hollywood Reporter says that the line in the movie, spoken by Owen Wilson’s character was, “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.”

U.S. District Judge Michael Mills analyzed various factors to determine whether use of the quote was really fair use, including the character and purpose of use and the substantiality of the work used.

Hollywood Reporter notes that Judge Mills outlined in his ruling how the works were very different. The movie was a comedy while Faulkner’s novel was a serious literary work. In his ruling, Mills says that “This transmogrification in medium tips this factor in favor of transformative, and thus, fair use.”

The judge also thought that a nine word quote was not substantive enough to not be fair use, despite Faulkner Literary Rights’s claim that the quote was the essence of the whole novel.

Furthermore, the judge also stated that Sony’s First Amendment rights are more important than a Lanham Act claim that viewers might think there is some kind of endorsement or affiliation by use of the quote.

Although Sony won the lawsuit in federal court, they may still not be out of the woods yet because Faulkner Literary Rights also brought a state-based claim for commercial appropriation against Sony. However, the federal court refused to hear the claim, so it might be brought in a Mississippi state court.

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