It may be one of the most-quoted lines in American literature -- and if you dare to quote it, you might have to pay.
In late October, Faulkner Literary Rights -- which represents Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner's estate -- sued representatives of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" for misquoting the famous line, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
In the film, about a writer who travels back in time to 1920s Paris, Owen Wilson's character lightly rephrases the line as "The past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past."
For the film's sin, Faulkner's estate is suing for copyright infringement and asking for "damages, disgorgement of profits, costs and attorney fees," according to the suit.
Defendant Sony Pictures Classics, which released "Midnight in Paris," quickly fired back.
"This is a frivolous lawsuit and we are confident we will prevail in defending it," the studio said in a statement, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Sony is defending the quotation as a "fair use" under copyright law, which is a defense that lets others freely reproduce copyrighted works for purposes such as criticism, comment and news reporting.
Woody Allen had no comment, his publicist told CNN.
But Lee Caplin, executor of the Faulkner estate, believes the movie went over the line in its use of the quotation, which comes from Faulkner's 1950 work "Requiem for a Nun."
He points out that "Midnight in Paris" is a commercial enterprise, the line was important to the film and Allen or Sony should have asked permission. Ron Howard asked and received permission (for a fee) from the estate to use a Faulkner quotation in a Howard-produced TV series, he says, and Sony or Allen could have easily done the same.
"I don't think Woody is any less knowledgeable than Ron Howard," says Caplin, a lawyer and movie producer. "I think Woody's in the motion-picture business. It's called a business because you make a movie that sells tickets. ... When you attach Faulkner to your product, you're enhancing that product. You're enhancing it for artistic reasons, but you're mostly enhancing it for the entertaining business reasons of why you make a product more appealing."
Moreover, he adds, "If Woody could have written something better, I'm sure he would have."
But Neville Johnson, an entertainment lawyer who specializes in copyright and fair use, thinks the Faulkner estate is grasping.
The quote is short, for one thing -- nine words, a tiny fraction of "Requiem for a Nun." "You're telling me one sentence gets you a copyright infringement action? I don't think so," he says.
Caplin disagreed with that line of thinking. "It puzzles me that people think size matters," he says.
In addition, copyright infringement comes into play if it can damage the "potential market" of the original work.
"I guess the book will never sell another copy, don't you think?" Johnson thundered mockingly. "It's all over for Faulkner!"
Looking backward with the bard of Oxford
Of all the writers to be involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit, William Faulkner would seem one of the least likely.
The bard of Oxford, Mississippi, is known for colorfully evocative novels about a murky post-Civil War Southern landscape, which -- though rewarding -- are often the kinds of books forced on unsuspecting high school students. His writing isn't exactly pithy: He's been listed in Guinness World Records for constructing a record-setting 1,288-word sentence (in "Absalom, Absalom!"). Some of his best known works, such as "The Sound and the Fury" and "Intruder in the Dust," are noted for their thickets of stream-of-consciousness storytelling.
For many years, the Faux Faulkner Contest honored scribblers who attempted to reproduce the master's rhythmic prose, tormented Southern characters, and endless comma-strung clauses (with parenthetical asides).
Faulkner was no stranger to Hollywood himself, signing a series of contracts in the '30s and '40s to write for various studios. He was credited with six screenplays, including the adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" and Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." His love-hate relationship with the movies was parodied in the Coen brothers' film "Barton Fink" through the character of W.P. Mayhew, a hard-drinking Southerner hailed by the title character as "the finest novelist of our time."
Indeed, Faulkner is considered a titan of American literature, often evoked with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald among a trio of pre-World War II greats. His words -- particularly the ones approximated in "Midnight in Paris" -- still echo, says Jay Watson, the Howry Chair of Faulkner Studies at (where else?) the University of Mississippi.
"It describes themes in American history, and I think that's one of the reasons why that line has had such resonance," he says. Faulkner's line is haunting and backward-looking, a warning that we forget our tangled roots at our peril -- a sentiment not often expressed in this country, he points out.
"As a culture, the U.S. is pretty forward-looking and youth-oriented," Watson says, "and we very often tend to have a sharper eye on our future than on the past."
A 'very gray area'