Brow Beat

The Past Is Not Dead. In Fact, It’s Suing.

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris

Sony Pictures Classics.

The estate of William Faulkner has filed a lawsuit against Sony Pictures over a line in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris. The line in question belongs to Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, who says, “The past is not dead! Actually, it’s not even past.’ You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right.” As the estate notes in its complaint, the correct phrasing of the famous comment, which appears in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The estate cites this inaccuracy in its suit, arguing that Gil’s remark is “likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive” the people who see Midnight in Paris.

Is this lawsuit as crazy as it sounds?

Pretty much. Sony can easily argue that this is an example of “fair use,” copyright lawyer Lloyd Jassin told me today. Under fair use, artists, scholars, and others can “borrow or use small portions of in-copyright works for socially productive purposes without seeking permission.” The intent, Jassin says, is to prevent a restrictive creative environment and provide a balance between free speech and the rights of individual creators. The fact that the line is misquoted, which is not uncommon, is a moot point. In the U.S., unlike France, there are no moral rights statutes which would prevent the writers from “editing poorly.”

The studio can make a very convincing case that Allen is not simply “regurgitating” Faulkner, but using his words (or an approximation of them) to make a larger creative statement about Gil and the famous Southern writer. Gil’s character is a screenwriter struggling to write a novel—making him a mirror image of Faulkner himself, a successful novelist who later went to Hollywood, famously writing the screenplay for The Big Sleep, among many other films.

The quoting and attribution of Faulkner in Midnight in Paris is Allen’s way of bringing new meaning to a famous quote. “The motive for quoting Faulkner was to make a point,” says Jassin, “not steal bread from the mouths of Faulkner’s orphan children.”