200px-William_Faulkner_1949Some time ago, in our continuing series of “Cease and Desist Letters from Beyond the Grave,” we reported on a complaint for copyright infringement filed by William Faulkner’s literary estate against Sony Pictures, arising out of a single line spoken by Owen Wilson in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “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.” The plaintiff might have thought it caught a lucky break in that the judge, Michael P. Mills of the Northern District of Mississippi, was quite a Faulkner aficionado. Turned out to be just the opposite. Other than taking umbrage at Sony’s contention that Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was a “relatively obscure” work (“Nothing in the Yoknapatawpha canon is obscure,” the court wrote), Judge Mills came down squarely on the side of the filmmakers, dismissing the complaint on the grounds that the disputed quote constituted a fair use. His opinion is well worth reading in full, but his attitude is well summed up in one nugget: “How Hollywood’s flattering and artful use of literary allusion is a point of litigation, not celebration, is beyond this court’s comprehension.”

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  • Gary A. Rosen

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