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Federal judge dismisses copyright lawsuit filed by William Faulkner heirs against Sony

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JACKSON, Miss. - A federal judge in Mississippi has dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Woody Allen's 2011 film "Midnight in Paris" improperly used one of William Faulkner's most famous lines.

Faulkner Literary Rights LLC sued Sony Pictures Classics Inc. in October in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Miss., Faulkner's hometown.

The lawsuit said a character in the movie took a line from Faulkner's book, "Requiem for a Nun."

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," Faulkner wrote in the book.

In the movie, actor Owen Wilson, says: "The past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. I met him too. I ran into him at a dinner party."

U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills, himself the author of a book called "Twice Told Tombigbee Tales," dismissed the lawsuit in a ruling Thursday.

"The court has viewed Woody Allen's movie, 'Midnight in Paris,' read the book, 'Requiem for a Nun,' and is thankful that the parties did not ask the court to compare 'The Sound and the Fury' with 'Sharknado,'" the judge wrote.

The "Sound and the Fury" is a Faulkner classic. "Sharknado" is a recent television movie about tornadoes that fling sharks from the ocean onto land, with deadly consequences.

"At issue in this case is whether a single line from a full-length novel singly paraphrased and attributed to the original author in a full-length Hollywood film can be considered a copyright infringement. In this case, it cannot," the judge wrote.

Lee Caplin, who oversees the literary estate, said Friday in a telephone interview that the ruling "is problematic for authors throughout the United States" and he's considering what legal options are available.

"We're very disappointed in the judge's ruling and we feel it's not only wrong, it's going to be damaging to creative people everywhere," Caplin said.

Sony Pictures said in a statement Friday that the company was "confident that the judge in this case would get it right, and he did."

The lawsuit had argued that the line could confuse viewers "as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association" between Faulkner and Sony.

Mills disagreed.

"The movie contains literary allusion, the name Faulkner and a short paraphrase of his quote, neither of which can possibly be said to confuse an audience as to an affiliation between Faulkner and Sony," Mills wrote in a 17-page memorandum that accompanied the ruling.

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Follow Holbrook Mohr on Twitter at http://twitter.com/holbrookmohr.

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