midnight_Wide

All Faulkner's work ... Midnight in Paris

Move over Men At Work, the lawyers are circling with more creative copyright cannibalism, and this time they've got Woody Allen in their sights.

As every television network constantly reminds us, lawyers make for good drama, but sometimes good drama attracts lawyers. Just not necessarily commonsense. Prior to last year, Hollywood and global cinema audiences had rather assumed Woody Allen was slowly fading into obscurity. Sure, he was as prolific as ever. Sure, Vicky Cristina Barcelona garnered some critical love (though not from this writer who still can't understand the fuss) and the who's who of actors were still clamouring to appear in his films as he made his way around Europe, but at the box office and in the studios it was widely understood that Woody's best days were behind him.

Greed, for lack of a better word, is apparently a good enough reason to leave dignity aside and claim money on a dead person's behalf. 

Then came the truly wonderful Midnight in Paris, the greatest box-office success of Allen's career, nominated for awards aplenty and full of the sort of wit and intelligence that had critics (including me that time) and audiences raving. The premise, the glorious premise, was of an American writer, Gil Pender, staying in Paris with his fiancee, who discovered a way to travel back in time to visit famous creatives such as Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald during the Parisian “golden age.”

Woody Allen and Judy Davis on the set of <i>To Rome with Love</i>.

Presumably Romulus and Remus are preparing litigation ... Woody Allen and Judy Davis on the set of To Rome with Love.

Cue success, cue the lawyers.

The Hollywood Reporter reports that the owners of the rights to the literary works of William Faulkner are now suing Sony Pictures Classics (the distributor of the film) among others, not because Faulkner was represented in the film – he wasn't – but because one quote from one of his books was paraphrased by Allen in the script.

In Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, he writes: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

Now, in the sort of frivolous and somewhat ironic legal action that would seem more at home in an Allen movie than about it, the dead writer's words are rising to litigate. For in the film, Pender states at one point: “The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”

That's right, it's paraphrased and the author is attributed. But according to Faulkner Literary Rights LLC, they are owed “damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorney fees.” This is because the “use of the infringing quote and of William Faulkner's name in the infringing film is likely to cause confusion, to cause mistake, and/or to deceive the infringing film's viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand.”

In other words, audiences – at least those who even remember the single line of dialogue that references Faulkner in the centre of a film that features far more heavily at least a dozen famous creative names – are so finely attuned to the nuances of dialogue but so wilfully obtuse about the workings of a Hollywood script, that they will believe Faulkner and/or his estate signed on to the film. Moreover, the massive contribution that one line of dialogue had to the film entirely warrants a chunk of the profits.

Oddly, the studio has stated that “this is a frivolous lawsuit and we are confident we will prevail in defending it. There is no question this brief reference (10 words) to a quote from a public speech Faulkner gave constitutes fair use and any claim to the contrary is without merit.”

It is without merit, but its absence is compensated for by spooning on lashings of greed, cynicism and mercenary spirit.

To paraphrase Gordon Gecko, in Wall Street, written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, “greed, for lack of a better word, is apparently a good enough reason to leave dignity aside and claim money on a dead person's behalf.”

And if Messrs Weiser and Stone wish to litigate, they certainly have precedent.