Faulkner’s Literary Estate “Works Hard” (at Staying in the Limelight?)

Copyrights are never deadWith how often William Faulkner’s name comes up on social and mainstream media these days, you’d think he were still alive. I can’t seem to go more than a few weeks without seeing a Faulkner headline, whether it’s about his estate’s frivolous attempt to make copyright law even worse or his estate’s sudden discovery of yet another “treasure trove” of the long-deceased writer’s papers.*

Apparently, last year, the executor of the estate stumbled across Faulkner’s literary papers in a family barn, and now these items, plus Faulkner’s Nobel medal (I hope it wasn’t in the barn, too!), will go on the auction block at Sotheby’s. I’m surprised no one thought to check Faulkner’s barn before. This type of “sudden discovery” within a few years of the last auction makes me wonder if the estate is simply dribbling out papers in the hopes that calling each portion a “new discovery” will bring added attention and a higher price — whatever it takes to make a buck or two (or a couple hundred thousand).

The estate has also been using meritless lawsuits to try to make a buck, claiming copyright infringement for short quotes of Faulkner’s work — the type of quoting or paraphrasing that the law typically regards as “fair use.” So far, they have sued commercial enterprises: (1) Sony for a nine-word paraphrase of Faulkner in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (a frivolous lawsuit), and (2) The Washington Post and Northrop Grumman for an advertisement using a fourteen-word Faulkner quote (at most, a weak case).

I described in an earlier post, When Someone Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You,” why the Faulkner estate’s efforts are a threat to us all:

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.

Unfortunately, as I explained in my follow-up post, “Manners” for Authors: On Being Quoted, the lawsuit against the Post and Northrop Grumman settled early, and we’re still waiting to hear the court’s decision on Sony’s motion to dismiss.** The update from last week is that while Sony’s motion to dismiss is still pending, Sony has filed a letter brief informing the court of persuasive authority from other courts that suggests the Faulkner estate’s claims should be thrown out. Let’s hope that’s what happens — or artists of all stripes might have to start paying a toll when we quote a line or two from our favorite books, in much the same way that Warner Brothers still brings in $2 million annually from Happy Birthday To You.

Turning back to the “newly discovered” Faulkner papers for a moment, I think it’s interesting that whoever purchases those items will probably own only the physical items and not the copyright — indeed, it’s questionable whether they would even be able to publish scans of the pages of the book they own! Here are Sotheby’s terms:

We and the Consignor make no representations and warranties, express or implied, as to whether the purchaser acquires any copyrights, including but not limited to, any reproduction rights in any property.

 Generally speaking, the rights will remain with the author and his/her heirs during the author’s lifetime and for 70 years after the author’s death. That’s the current law for works published today and for unpublished works. So, any unpublished Faulkner materials in the recent “treasure trove” will fall into the public domain in 19 years. For works published during Faulkner’s lifetime, the copyright extends for 95 years after initial publication. So, some of his works will go out of copyright within ten years. It can’t come fast enough.

To paraphrase Faulkner myself, because I think it’s firmly within fair use: the copyrights of an author who passed away more than fifty years ago are not dead, they’re not even past.

*I wonder if my Dad’s students have heard of him.

**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. Great post! I don’t know much about Faulkner himself, but I wonder how he would view the exploitation of his name and his papers for money. There are plenty of authors who would love to be so ubiquitous as to have their words quoted in advertisements and movies…

  2. Chilling views on copyright! Yes! You know, that’s the case of the people who are strangling Jane Bowles. It makes me so sad! I actually translated one of her stories into Spanish and wrote to tell them (her?) about it, just like I’d share it on my website or something, and state “Unauthorized translation” or something, and… They threaten and persecute people trying to spread the word of Jane Bowles’s existence or work!! 😦

    1. Yeah. I can understand why an author or an estate would want to keep unauthorized versions to a minimum, but it could also be a missed opportunity to publicize the work. I really dislike it when the author is no longer living and we have a ridiculously long time to wait for the work to fall into the public domain. Thanks for the comment!

  3. A barn? The bloke’s been dead for 50 years and no one’s been in that corner of the barn since? 🙂
    A few years ago here the organisers of our little ‘Great North Run’ here in Jersey received a stern letter from the lawyers acting for the famous ‘Great North Run’ in England instructing them to desist. As if anyone was going to confuse them. I’m sure some pro-bono local lawyer could have had a field day with it, but the organisers decided to cave in. In this case it was just pettiness not money involved.
    Look forward to the Sony decision.

    1. Hi, Donna! Litigation has its virtues/merits, but like any system, it can be abused. My opinion is that the Faulkner estate has been abusing it.

    1. I bet it’s already planned: in 2032 and then every couple of years thereafter, the executor will suddenly “discover” a new “treasure trove” of papers to auction off! Maybe there’s even another Nobel lying around somewhere in all that hay… 😉

      1. They might actually have to *gasp* get jobs! Oh the horror!

        But I’m sure you’re right. They’re probably holding onto papers for that rainy day season.

        1. Yup! I actually tweaked the post a little–some of Faulkner’s published works will go out of copyright within 10 years (publication date + 95 years) and others are longer. For the unpublished manuscripts found in the barn, the copyright will extend until the end of 2032. Copyright law is a mess. It’s sole purpose is to enrich corporations and individuals still riding on decades-old creations.

          1. Copyright law is quite a complicated mess, and one of the effects the law has is to allow “corporations and individuals to make money from decades-old creations”. However, I don’t think the sole purpose behind copyright law is to enrich corporations and individuals. For example, copyright law enables authors to get attribution for their works, by, for instance, leveraging the law to CC-BY their creations. It also allows authors to control the initial distribution of their works and therefore maintain their privacy/solitude. Remember the Salinger v. Random House case that you cited earlier? All that said, yes, copyright law does have some very problematic aspects.

    1. Yeah, Faulkner inserted himself into our culture (hence all the references) and now his estate expects us to pay them a toll for it. It’s unlikely they would go after “empty pockets” like bloggers, but their arguments about copyright law could be very bad news down the road. They are PR geniuses, particularly if there’s no such thing as bad publicity (as the media attention around the lawsuits hasn’t been positive). Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I was thinking about this the other day when I posted on a page I maintain on facebook for my ancestry work. Sometimes I post info. from message boards where folks have listed thier ancestors etc that have been dead like well over 100 years etc, but then I thought should I be posting their post with that information? haha It is crazy because the only way you can make more discoveries is to work together on that kind of research, but then you have some that want to keep it all private. Go Figure. And yes these Faulkner folks and GO F$#% themselves as far as I am concerned.

    1. Yeah, I’m no fan of the Faulkner estate these days! As for the message boards, anyone who posts information on a public forum like that can’t expect privacy, and I would think that re-posting that information (with proper attribution) is fine. I agree that genealogical discoveries, much like creative endeavors, require borrowing and spreading information.

  5. This does smack of exploitation for money. Lately, it seems people only do things for money. Greed has taken over. Everyone wants to get their share (and more!).

    1. It does. If the discovery story isn’t true, then it’s unethical behavior and not that different from sock-puppeting. I just can’t imagine how disorganized Faulkner would’ve had to have been to leave “a treasure trove” of papers in a family barn (that, apparently, no one bothered to check). Strange story.

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