Sony Pictures Wins 'Midnight in Paris' Lawsuit Over Faulkner Quote (Exclusive)

"Midnight in Paris" (2011)
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"Woody just called us up and said, 'Hey, wanna come over and see the movie?' And we said, 'Sure.' We saw it at his screening room over at his hotel and said, 'We want it.' It really is that simple." -- Tom Bernard

A federal judge in Mississippi declared victory on Thursday for Sony Pictures in a lawsuit brought by the owners of the rights to the literary works of the late William Faulkner.

The lawsuit contended that the film distributor violated Faulkner's copyright and the Lanham Act by allowing a character in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris to quote a passage from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun.

Sony argued that the use was de minimis and a "fair use."

After thanking the attorneys for not asking him to compare The Sound and the Fury with  Sharknado, U.S. District Judge Michael Mills agrees.

Midnight in Paris features a protagonist played by Owen Wilson who travels to Paris and finds himself spending time with literary greats including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

In the film, Wilson describes his fantastic experiences. He says, “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.”

In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

In his ruling (read in full here), the judge analyzes the various factors that comprise a fair use to see whether Sony's exploitation of Faulkner's passage was legitimate.

In terms of the purpose and character of the use, the judge notes "the copyrighted work is a serious piece of literature lifted for use in a speaking part in a movie comedy, as opposed to a printed portion of a novel printed in a newspaper, or a song’s melody sampled in another song. This transmogrification in medium tips this factor in favor of transformative, and thus, fair use."

As for the substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work, the Faulkner literary estate attempted to argue that the "Quote describes the essence of Requiem," and as such deserved some extra credit for its qualitative importance.

But the judge responds, "Qualitative importance to society of a nine-word quote is not the same as qualitative importance to the originating work as a whole. Moreover, it should go without saying that the quote at issue is of miniscule quantitative importance to the work as a whole. Thus, the court considers both the qualitative and quantitative analyses to tip in favor of fair use."

Judge Mills is also doubtful that the market for Faulkner's work is going to be harmed by Midnight in Paris, and in fact theorizes that is more likely "the film indeed helped the plaintiff and the market value of Requiem if it had any effect at all."

For all of those reasons and more, the court's conclusion is that "no substantial similarity exists between the copyrighted work and the allegedly infringing work, and Sony’s use in this matter was de minimis. The use is not actionable, and this claim is dismissed."

STORY: Sony Sued Over William Faulkner Quote in 'Midnight in Paris' 

The judge adds that neither a literary allusion, the name Faukner nor a short paraphrase "can possibly be said to confuse an audience as to an affiliation between Faulkner and Sony. Allusion is not synonymous with affiliation, nor with appropriation. Faulkner has not provided any precedent suggesting that the mere use of a celebrity name in an artistic work somehow rises to the level of deception."

And the judge adds that Sony's First Amendment protection outweighs any Lanham Act claim that the movie misled viewers into believing there was an endorsement or connection with the Faulkner estate.

Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC also brought a claim for commercial misappropriation -- which is akin to a publicity rights charge -- but this is a state-based claim, so the federal court declines to exercise jurisdiction over it. It's possible that a new lawsuit will be brought in Mississippi state court that alleges that the film misappropriated Faulkner's identity by use of the quote, but for now, the lawsuit over the literary past is dead, notwithstanding what the famed American author believes about the past.

Twitter: @eriqgardner