When Someone Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You”*

I am “guilty” of having quoted William Faulkner in a piece of commentary shortly before his estate filed two lawsuits alleging copyright and trademark infringement against high profile defendants for what I would consider fair use of the Nobel Laureate’s work.  One suit is against Sony Pictures and movie distributors over a paraphrased Faulkner quote (8-9 words) in Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris.  The second suit is against The Washington Post and defense contractor Northrop Grumman over an advertisement that featured a fourteen-word Faulkner nugget.  In both cases, the defendants attributed the work to Faulkner.  The issue is that they did not pay royalties (to people who can’t take credit for those words either) for quoting 8-14 words that Faulkner strung together decades ago.

In part, the complaints allege that these defendants’ actions would be “likely to cause and/or has caused confusion, mistake, and/or deception” to consumers, as though your typical Washington Post reader or Midnight in Paris viewer is stupid enough to think the ghost of William Faulkner, who has been dead for five decades, is endorsing these products today.

These lawsuits, particularly the one related to Midnight in Paris, show a complete disregard for the creative process and misunderstand the fair use and de minimus use exceptions to copyright and trademark law in the United States.  The purpose of copyright law should be to encourage creativity, not to enrich a deceased author’s descendants half a century later.  Creative works build off of the past; even Shakespeare borrowed from others.  The inclusion of short quotes in novels, scripts, articles, and even blog posts is incredibly common and often falls into the aforementioned exceptions to the “exclusive rights” granted to holders of copyrights and trademarks.

The underlying facts of the lawsuit related to Midnight in Paris do not create any confusion and most definitely fall into fair use: The movie may have a commercial purpose, but (1) it only used a tiny portion of Faulkner’s copyrighted novel (Requiem for a Nun), (2) the quote is a very small part of the movie, and (3) the effect of the use could not possibly have a negative impact on the sales of Faulkner’s work.  In fact, the mention of Faulkner in a mainstream movie is free advertising.   Quite frankly, Faulkner’s lawyers should be sanctioned for filing such a frivolous suit.

The lawsuit against The Washington Post and Northrop Grumman, while meritless in my opinion, probably isn’t frivolous and so might prove to be a little more difficult for the Post and Northrop Grumman to defend.  As Max, a lawyer familiar with intellectual property law and author of Litigation and Trial, explains (because I asked for his thoughts):

In terms of a copyright infringement, the advertisement will have a harder time than the movie proving the fair use defense, because the advertisement really is centered around the Faulkner quote, while the quote in the movie is merely a line. Similarly, under the Lanham Act (trademark infringement) claim, I suppose the Faulkner estate has a weak argument that, given the prominence Faulkner’s name, there is some “likelihood of confusion” (the primary legal test) among the public.

That said, courts have taken a dim view of efforts by artist’s estates to maintain total control over use of their decedent’s names and works. Hemingway’s estate tried and lost when one of Hemingway’s close friends wrote a memoir that quoted him liberally, “Papa Hemingway.” Estate of Hemingway v. Random House, Inc., 244 N.E.2d 250, 260 (N.Y. 1968). Even living authors don’t have total control over the use of their works: famously reclusive and litigious J.D. Salinger tried to enjoin publication of an unauthorized biography that quoted liberally from his private letters (which Salinger had furiously tried to copyright once he learned of the biographer’s methods) and lost. Salinger v. Random House, Inc., 650 F. Supp. 413 (S.D.N.Y. 1986). [Edit from Max: To clarify what I meant, Salinger lost initially, then won on appeal; the appellate court agreed “fair use” generally permits biographers to quote portions of writer’s works, but held that unpublished materials deserved heightened protection.]

The worst-case scenario, in my opinion, involves some court giving credence to the Faulkner estate’s shockingly narrow and chilling view of copyright law. It is particularly concerning that Faulkner’s lawsuits seek to narrow exceptions to intellectual property rights in a way that could restrict not only the creative work of wealthy “deep pockets,” like Sony, but also “empty pockets,” like authors and bloggers who use short quotes in their works.

What is the likelihood that a copyright holder would go after a poor blogger?  It’s a real risk, as anyone who has received a cease and desist letter or a complaint will say.  Do we want to make the law such that quoting 8-14 words in a small portion of a much larger work is potentially copyright and trademark infringement?  That’s what the ghost of Faulkner (per his estate) is trying to do.

I wonder whether the Faulkner estate has considered how their greedy actions could backfire.  Their litigious nature could chill future references to the author, thus ending the free advertising and possibly hastening the speed with which the public will lose interest in his work.  Who reads Faulkner anymore anyway?

I will squelch my urge to sum up my thoughts on these lawsuits with a quote from Faulkner (although I will happily attribute fake quotes to his ghost).  Instead, I will end with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who uttered the following sentence in an entirely different context, but I think the plain meaning of these words is an appropriate response to the Faulkner estate’s frivolous actions: “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

*Formerly titled, The Ghost of William Faulkner: “Quote Me At Your Own Risk”

*See the follow post for updates in the Faulkner estate litigation: Manners” for Authors (On Being Quoted and an Update on the Faulkner Lawsuits).

UPDATE (7/19/13): U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills has DISMISSED the Faulkner Estate’s lawsuit against Sony Pictures! This is very good news.


    1. Yes, the district court’s opinion is very good news! A narrower definition of Fair Use is a threat to all of us, and while I think the estate’s legal argument is frivolous, you never know what a court will do with it. So, my fingers are crossed that the 5th Circuit will do the right thing. Part of me thinks that the estate still feels like it “won” because they are such attention seekers (which I discuss in a different post: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/faulkners-literary-estate-works-hard-at-staying-in-the-limelight/). They just want Faulkner’s name in the news.

  1. I couldn’t have put it better “The purpose of copyright law should be to encourage creativity, not to enrich a deceased author’s descendants half a century later.” – so true, so true !!!

    1. Thank you! I really doubt anyone says: “It’s not worth writing my Pulitzer prize-winning novels if my heirs can’t get paid when others quote me in fifty years!”

  2. AMB might these suits simply have been filed with an eye to a quick out-of-court settlement? I’ve no idea of how things work in the States but over here (Europe) insurers would sooner offer a small-ish sum to settle early on even if the case has little merit, just to save the fees and hassle. Certainly that’s the case for PI, maybe likewise for IP?

    1. Possibly, and I hope the defendants don’t cave in so easily. In my line of work, which isn’t intellectual property, I can say that few defendants are offering quick settlements. The memo on the defense side seems to say, “Fight everything!”

    1. You’re correct, it was reversed on the injunction because of the extraordinary volume copied and because it was unpublished; the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s analysis of fair use, but noted that it changed entirely because the material remained unpublished. The Second Circuit otherwise ignored Salinger’s arguments about controlling his image, hence the District Court’s analysis still standing (and still being relied on today elsewhere). The difference for Faulkner, of course, is that the works in question were both published.

  3. While I’m sure the defendants in the “Midnight in Paris” suit will raise Fair Use as one of their defenses, I’m not sure that their paraphrase of Faulkner even establish a prima facie case of copyright infringement. After all, the idea that the past is dead, even expressed thusly, seems much more of an unprotected idea than a expression.

    1. I agree, which is why I think the lawyers should be sanctioned for wrongful use of civil proceedings. It’s ridiculous that they filed this suit.

  4. The ability to share great quotes is one of the best things about reading a really good book, and I’d think most authors would appreciate it, even the dead ones, because it means their work left a mark. I know I’d be thrilled to have any of my quotes used.

    Great post! I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I would be thrilled if someone quoted my work, too. The appropriate response is “thank you,” not a cease and desist letter.

  5. I wanted to lead each chapter of a recent book with a lyric from a song, a different one each time. But I found out songwriters are bulldogs when it comes to protecting their lyrics, and I didn’t have time to get permission for every little snippet, so I deleted them all.

    Sometimes, quoting something draws attention to it enough that it might make someone want to buy it. Denying permission by rabidly protecting your rights is probably detrimental to the bottom line. Didn’t they write the song to get attention? To make money?

    It’s a complex issue, but some people should lighten the hell up. They’d live longer. ;/

    1. I’ve often heard that the music industry is tough on copyright issues, but my guess is that quoting lyrics would fall within fair use if it’s only a small portion of a larger work and doesn’t negatively impact the market for that song.

      I agree with you about how quoting a song or a book is advertising. “Midnight in Paris” might have resulted in a few book sales for Faulkner. What Faulkner’s estate is trying to do will only result in his irrelevance if it forces people to stop referencing his work.

  6. Interesting post. I agree that the “Midnight in Paris” lawsuit especially seems to completely misconstrue (or disregard?!) the fair use concept. It’s scary to think about what it could hold for the future, depending on the final result of the case. Especially for bloggers! Blogs are not going away and while I think what we do is legitimate criticism (or parody, in some cases), it’s a little scary to think of the publishing industry going after bloggers with ridiculous allegations like these. Hope it doesn’t happen – we’re readers, too!

    1. Hi Jaclyn! I can’t believe the estate’s lawyers brought that case. If the court takes it seriously, it could have implications for all of us. I imagine that the publishing industry would largely ignore “empty pockets” who infringe on copyrights, but that doesn’t mean every author or press would.

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