William Faulkner Estate Sues Washington Post Over Freedom Quote

The Washington Post Exterior - H 2011
Getty Images

The Washington Post Exterior - H 2011

The ghost of William Faulkner isn't quite finished making sound and fury over the use of his work.

On Thursday, the owners of the rights to the late author's literary masterpieces sued Sony Pictures Classics over a line spoken in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

Faulkner Literary Rights LLC has followed up that lawsuit with another on Friday targeting The Washington Post Company and Northrop Grumman Corporation over something Faulkner wrote about freedom in 1956 in Harper's Magazine. The plaintiff says the defense contractor wasn't at liberty to lift it in a full-page Independence Day advertisement in The Washington Post.

STORY: HBO Pacts With David Milch for Faulkner Adaptations

The legal claims might very well be intentioned as serious, but the choice of quotes triggering litigation could merit as much discussion in an editorial meeting of The New York Review of Books as it will soon in a Mississippi federal courtroom.

In the Midnight in Paris claim, Faulkner's heirs targeted a line uttered in the movie by Owen Wilson that said, "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past," which was derived from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, which had a passage that declared, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

OK, the act of remembering things past gives new life to things supposedly gone. That much is clear from the very fact that Sony is being sued over a quote from an author who died sixty years ago.

The obvious defenses are fair use and free speech, which makes the second lawsuit's quote-in-controversy equally interesting. This time, Faulkner's heirs are going after commercial speech, which gets less First Amendment protection.

In this new lawsuit, the Faulkner estate says Northrop Grumman's July 4th advertisement used and attributed to Faulkner the quote, "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it."

The quotation comes from a Faulkner Harper's essay entitled "On Fear: The South in Labor," which the plaintiff says was a reflection on the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education.

In the essay, Faulkner's next line is, "Our freedom must be buttressed by a homogeny equally and unchallengeably free, no matter what color they are, so that all the other inimical forces everywhere -- systems political or religious or racial or national -- will not just respect us because we practice freedom, they will fear us because we do."

Think about it.

The plaintiff did, and it came to the conclusion that the use of the quote was an infringement upon its rights, plus the advertisement would confuse the public into believing an association between the military contractor and William Faulkner.

In the Washington Post advertisement, the Faulkner quote was accompanied by a large photograph of an American flag, Northrop's corporate logo and more text that reads, "On July 4th, 1976, The members of the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, making us a free nation. We're thankful for our freedom and for those who continue to keep us free."

Northrop Grumman is also alleged to have made the advertisement available on its corporate website. In smaller text in the advertisement, according to the complaint, appeared the notation, "(c) 2011 Northrop Grumman Corporation."

As in the lawsuit against Sony, the claims are copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham Act and commercial appropriation. Neither Northrop Grumman nor Washington Post were immediately available to respond.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner