“Manners” for Authors: On Being Quoted (and an Update on the Faulkner Lawsuits)

Ssipping on FaulknerWhen we quote a literary ancestor or a contemporary writer, we often intend it as a compliment.  We found something worth noting or inspiring in their words, and we wanted to share it with our family, friends, and readers.  Literary references fuel the creative process and bestow a gift on our sources of inspiration: free advertising.  Even when our reference to another author’s words is not complimentary, the quote could still raise that person’s profile, particularly if we believe there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Failing to see these benefits of quotes, William Faulkner’s estate has attempted to make it against the law to quote short segments of other people’s works without paying a toll (royalties).  In my post entitled, When Someone Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You,” I wrote about the estate’s lawsuits against Sony Pictures for an 8-9 word paraphrased quote in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and against The Washington Post and defense contractor Northrop Grumman over a fourteen word quote in an advertisement.

Now there’s an update: Apparently, the Faulkner estate has settled its case against The Washington Post and Northrop Grumman.  I know nothing of the terms of the settlement, but I assume the defendants offered the Faulkner estate some amount of money in exchange for dismissal of the case.  This was the lawsuit that attorney Max of Litigation and Trial told us was somewhat more likely to succeed than the patently frivolous case against Sony Pictures.  Still, it annoys me that the Faulkner estate would receive any money for such an outrageous attempt to narrow fair use under copyright and trademark law.  The case against Sony remains ongoing.*

Coincidentally, while shopping for my twins’ 5th birthday party on the day I learned of the Faulkner settlement, I came across one of my favorite childhood drinks — Ssips original lemon iced tea — sporting an inspirational Faulkner quote from Flags in the Dust on the side (see the image above).  Did Ssips pay royalties to the estate for use of this quote?  Who knows.  Am I in danger of being sued for reproducing the short quote on this blog for the purpose of discussion?  I’ll take my chances.  I believe that both of these limited uses of this short quote fall squarely within fair use and the de minimus use doctrine.

My five-year-olds won’t be reading Faulkner anytime soon, but others who drink this tea may google Faulkner after seeing this quote, perhaps deciding to pick up Flags in the Dust, a classic that many people probably have never read.  For those books still within copyright, following the Faulkner estate’s rude example in the Midnight in Paris and Northrop Grumman cases will only hasten their descent into irrelevance by discouraging people from mentioning them.  Authors should not respond to a compliment with a lawsuit.

Here are a few pictures from the party yesterday.  My twins, who turn five today, can’t quite read all of the words that grace the side of the Ssips box, but someday they will.  Maybe they’ll even grow up to enjoy Faulkner.  


Cake Baked By My Mom And Built By My Dad
Cake Baked By My Mom And Built By My Dad


*Update (12/18/12): Sony has filed its Motion to Dismiss and a separate document for a change of venue (to move the case from Mississippi to New York, saying “no witnesses, documents, or anything else related to this case is in Mississippi”).  Sounds about right to me.

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. That cake is the best thing I’ve ever seen.

    The Faulkner stuff is amusing. I’m not surprised they’re so aggressive! But I do hope that fair use, which is so important to everything academics do, remains broad. I’m a bit of an information-libertarian in my heart, I think.

    1. Thank you. I feel so lucky that my parents make the same types of cakes for my children that they made for me.

      I also disfavor regulation of access to and use of information. The Faulkner lawsuit is amusing, for now, but I won’t be laughing if it manages to narrow exceptions to copyright and trademark law.

    1. Thank you! It was hard to cut into it (my husband did it), but not as hard as some of the other cakes my dad has done. The ones that are animals or dolls (like Elmo) are really difficult to “decapitate.”

  2. Late to the party (literally) but your children are beautiful and that cake rocks!!! 🙂 The lawsuit update is interesting … I have to say I’m a bit sad also if money was exchanged as you suggested. And I’m sure you are correct!

    1. Thank you! I hope copyright holders don’t take a page out of the Faulkner Estate’s book and think they can get easy money by filing these types of lawsuits.

    1. Thanks, Robyn! I love how digital cameras allow me to document so much of my kids’ lives. My girls are probably going to wonder why we took so many pictures of them!

    1. Thank you! They had such a great time at their party. We had two days of celebration (the party on Sunday and their actual birthday yesterday), which I think is appropriate for twins.

  3. Fascinating on-going story. We are fortunate that you are helping raise awareness. And … the face-painting on your daughters is awesome! What beautiful birthday girls, mama!

    1. Thanks, Jane! My girls just love getting their faces painted. They had a nice time at their party.

      The Faulkner lawsuits are outrageous, particularly the one against Sony for Midnight in Paris. Bloggers/writers should be very concerned about any limitations to fair use that could impede the creative process.

  4. Let’s hope the Faulkner estate’s quest for money doesn’t result in the banning of literary quotes on the sides of beverage boxes, which I think is a brilliant idea. Rather impressive birthday cake too!

    1. I love the quotes on the drink boxes, and while it’s possible that this company is paying a royalty or would in the future, I think few people would choose to pay such a toll to use a short quote. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Aw, thanks! It’s just like the cakes my parents made for me when I was a kid (I’ve had everything from a stegasaurus to the statue of libterty). These days, for understandable reasons, most of the pre-K birthday parties are at what I call “party factories,” where more than one party happens in the same facility and the kids are shuffled through the entertainment rooms (such as moon bounces). The kids have a great time at those places, but it’s impersonal and always the same for every kid. I like doing the parties at home, even though it’s a lot of work.

  5. Lessee… Faulkner’s estate decided to sue Woody Allen, right? Because the quote turned up in his film, I’m assuming he’s the ultimate person responsible. This tells me the estate is after money, nothing more. If I’d quoted the same damn thing in one of my books, not only is there a good chance they wouldn’t have heard of me (since I don’t sell much right now), but if they had, they would have said, “Huh. No money here. Let’s move on….”

    1. Most people would go after only those with “deep pockets,” but many normal people have received cease and desist letters and DMCA notices for what they’ve put on their blogs. If fair use is weakened, it makes all of us more vulnerable.

  6. This is an interesting topic. I hadn’t heard about the Faulkner estate going bonkers like that–it’s just weird. Personally, I 100% okay with people quoting small segements of larger works, as long as there is proper attribution.

    In the future, when I am a successful author, I wouldn’t be concerned with receiving payment for my words so much as credit for saying them. There are fair-use laws for a reason.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s