When 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.
*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.