While most authors are aware of the legal dangers of using direct quotes from other sources in their books, I’m sure many will be surprised by the news that the makers of the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris are being sued for paraphrasing a line from a 62-year-old William Faulkner novel.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film features a moment in which Owen Wilson’s character refers to a line from the novel. He doesn’t quote it directly; instead, he uses some of the same words and mentions that it’s a line from Faulkner. Now, Faulkner Literary Rights LLC claim that they are due compensation due to this usage.
A little research shows that, surprisingly, the case does have precedents. In 1987, in the case of Salinger v Random House, a court found that a biography of J.D. Salinger could not paraphrase quotes from the author’s private letters. Four years later, in Wright v Warner Books, a court found that paraphrased quotes in a biography of Richard Wright were simply factual reportage of basic facts.
My initial reaction was that there’s no way the Faulkner case could be taken seriously, but the examples above suggest that this is indeed one of the ways in which copyright law works. I’d argue that while copyright law has an obvious role to play, it should not stop the paraphrasing of quotes, especially such short lines as the one included in Midnight in Paris. But sadly, as things stand, the legal basis for the case doesn’t seem to be as wacky as it first appeared.
Hang on, got to stop typing, a white rabbit just ran past holding a pocket-watch…