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Charles B. Sears Law Library SUNY Buffalo Law School

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Much Ado About Faulkner

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If you were compiling categories of people and places that it is best to avoid messing with, there would be some clear winners. Texas, for instance, is the state with which you would avoid argumentative entanglements.  When it comes to Southern authors, I would have said that one should not mess with Mark Twain (dude said he wanted to dig up Jane Austen “and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone”), but it turns out we should be keeping a weather eye on William Faulkner. Or at least his estate.

William Cuthbert Faulkner, he of the 1, 288 word sentence, is considered one of the best American writers of the twentieth century. Twenty-first century audiences were reintroduced to The Sound and the Fury author via Woody Allen’s delightful movie, Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson’s character invokes a line from Faulkner’s work, Requiem for a Nun (“The past is not dead. It’s not even passed.”), and last month, Faulkner Literary Rights LLC filed a suit for copyright infringement. Sony Picture Classics, which released the film, has called the suit “frivolous.” Potential frivolity aside, the suit has sparked discussion over the concept of fair use, and whether or not size matters (the quote in question is only 9 words).

Sony isn’t the only defendant tangling with Faulkner’s estate. Only a couple of days after filing the Midnight in Paris lawsuit, the estate also initiated another lawsuit against Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor, and the Washington Post for an ad  Northrop Grumman placed in the Post that used an attributed Faulkner quote.  Seems like all those on the Faulkner Institute’s “Faulkner Sighting” page best watch their backs. This Southern author—well his literary estate anyway—means business.

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