The literary estate of William Faulkner has been on quite a tear this past week.  On October 25th it filed a copyright infringement suit against Sony Pictures Classics, and on October 26th another against Northrop Grumman Corporation and The Washington Post.  Both suits center around the attibuted use of a famous Faulkner aphorism.  In the Sony case the alleged infringement is a line spoken by the Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past.  You know who said that?  Faulkner.”  Northrup Grumman arises out of a July 4th adverisement that the company ran in the Washington Post, which included the following:

We must be free

not because we claim freedom,

but because we practice it.

— William Faulkner

Is it all sound and fury, signifying nothing?  Or could this mean the end of the epigraph business?

I wouldn’t put my money on these presumably well-meaning heirs and assigns.  Although I was less taken with the cleverness of Midnight in Paris than many, Woody Allen’s use of the Faulkner passage, fewer than 10 words from a full-length novel, spoken by a contemporary writer who makes nocturnal visits to the literary salons of 1920s Paris, seems to be the quintessence of a “transformative” use, i.e., it in no way supersedes or replaces Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, or any passage from it, but instead “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.”  Northrup’s use of a slightly longer passage from a short essay as an epigraph to a commercial advertisement presents a closer case on copyright fair use, but nonetheless I would think if the estate has any chance at all, it will be on its (still rather attenuated) claims that the ad might cause confusion “as to the origin, sponsorship or approval of Northrop’s goods, services or commercial activity by William Faulkner.”

Leave a Comment