Earlier today I came across this article about a couple of lawsuits that have been filed by the Faulkner estate for copyright infringement. One of these targets Woody Allen for daring to use a nine/ten word quote in a movie (words that were openly credited in the film), the other targets a defense contractor for quoting the author in an ad. From my perspective the second one of these lawsuits does have some merit (even in a full page ad, an identifiable quote is likely to represent a measurable chunk of the content of that ad, not to mention that a quotation under those circumstances can be seen as a tacit endorsement, and I agree that authors and their heirs have a right to refuse such a thing), but it is the first one of these lawsuits that I find not just troubling but also extremely dangerous.
Yes, copyright is important (though I also have to say that the laws that were meant to protect it have been badly abused in recent years) and plagiarism should not be tolerated, but there is no plagiarism here, and as far as I am concerned this particular lawsuit is not only taking things too far, but if successful it threatens to set a precedent that would be extremely dangerous. Let’s face it, authors have been quoting each other for centuries, and when it comes to very short snippets the truth is that that may not even be deliberate. In fact I have read hundreds of books in my life, some as a child (to say nothing of countless newspapers, magazines, blog posts and other sources of written material, plus films and TV shows), and I freely admit that there are any number of turns of phrase that have crept into my long-term storage without the appropriate bibliographical reference attached. That comes with living and being human, it is part and parcel of the way in which we absorb language from the world around us. The question then becomes where do we draw the line. That is not an easy one to answer, but I do believe that the freedom to quote other authors, within reason, has always been one of the cornerstones of writing and literature as a whole. No, I would not extend that freedom to advertisement, that is a completely different kettle of fish as far as I am concerned, but when it comes to film and literature I do believe that suing over less than ten words out of a whole script is taking things a bit too far.
Now, as I reread my words, I can only hope that I won’t get sued for saying that extending such a freedom to advertisement would be ‘a completely different kettle of fish’, after all that particular expression is precisely one of those that have crept into my long-term storage without the appropriate bibliographical reference attached. I know I didn’t come up with it but I don’t know who did, and you know what? I don’t particularly care. It is a part of language, one of those expressions that are understood by most even if it doesn’t really seem to make much sense, and I suspect that by now its origins have been all but lost. That is how language lives, how it grows and how it thrives… and it is precisely that ability to thrive that I fear is being threatened by the Faulkner’s estate decision to sue over nine or ten words.