When Owen Wilson”s character in “Midnight in Paris” said that “the past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past,” he was paraphrasing from a work of William Faulkner but not, a federal court ruled on Thursday, infringing on the late author’s copyright and trademark.
Sony Pictures Classics has won a dismissal of a suit brought by the holders of rights to William Faulkner’s literary works, when a federal judge ruled that screenwriter-director Woody Allen’s use of the phrase for the movie was fair use.
Faulkner Literary Rights sued Sony Pictures Classics last year, claiming that the use of the phrase violated the Copyright Act and the Lanham Act. A character in Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” county attorney Gavin Stevens, says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. Mills, based in Oxford, Miss., wrote that it is “difficult to fathom that Sony somehow sought some substantial commercial benefit by infringing on copyrighted material for no more than eight seconds in a ninety minute film.
Likewise, it is evident that this eight second clip serves as a thematic catharsis or apex in plot to neither ‘Requiem’ nor ‘Midnight.’”
Weighing in favor of Sony was that the use of the quote was “transformative,” one of the factors that courts use to decide whether use of copyrighted material is “fair.”
Mills noted that it was lifted for use in a movie comedy, as opposed to some other literary work. Faulkner Literary Rights also argued that because it enters into licensing agreements for copyrighted materials, the use of the quote in “Midnight in Paris” would affect their ability to collect fees in the future.
But Mills wrote that “the court does not consider a copyright holder to be entitled to licensing fees for fair use of his or her work.” Mills also rejected claims that the use violated the Lanham Act — which governs trademarks — and wrote that the claims were “without merit.”
“We were confident that the judge in this case would get it right, and he did,” Sony said in a statement.
Update: Lee Caplin, representing Faulkner Literary Rights, said, “We are obviously quite disappointed. We think it is going to be very bad for artists everywhere.”
He added that “right now, our decision is to reconvene and analyze our next moves.”
As a child, Caplin lived next door to Faulkner when the author was artist in residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
He said that “it is rare that somebody takes the kind of liberty that Sony took.” He added that he “can’t really blame Woody Allen. He wrote the script he did. It is really up to the licensing department to follow up.”