The Man Behind the Faulkner Estate


Now here’s a nightmare most writers never contemplate: imagine that it’s years after you have died, and joined the pantheon of literary greats in absentia, and are so renowned that filmmakers can quote you in passing, and attribute it to your last name alone because the audience, damn straight, knows who you are. Then some descendant of yours bops along and decides to enforce their rights in the most egregiously ridiculous way possible, embarrassing you. The latest person to whom this has apparently happened is William Faulkner.

Forgive a bit of lawyerly nerdery here, but what precisely has happened is that an entity called Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC, has sued Sony Pictures Corporation, and now the Washington Post Company, for using quotes from Faulkner’s work. In the former case the quote is so famous as to be a commonplace, which is why it went into Owen Wilson’s mouth in (the admittedly execrable, but hey, your mileage may vary) Midnight in Paris. That’s pretty textbook fair use; it’s curious they found a lawyer willing to take this on. It’s further curious that in all the  press I can find of anyone working with the Faulkner estate before, the executor is listed not as “Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC,” but a lawyer named Lee Caplin, who has a company called the Picture Entertainment Corporation that among other projects manages the Faulkner estate’s rights. Apparently he grew up as Faulkner’s neighbor, and is close to Faulkner’s daughter. Who, it seems, though I haven’t the papers, owns the LLC in question.

Caplin’s the one who just sold the television rights to Light in August to David Milch, of Deadwood fame.  He’s also worked with James Franco on a version of As I Lay Dying. In the one piece of press I could find where someone bothered to call him about this, from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, quotes him as saying, “These people should have known better.” This is a curious attitude for a film producer himself (Ali), since I doubt he goes to every person he might refer to in a movie and get permission. But then I don’t live in Hollywood.

He also tells the paper the problem is mostly that they wanted approval of the quotes, not royalties per se. Which is a practice, of course, that is increasingly unpopular with the courts since the Joyce estate was forced to settle with a scholar from whom they’d been withholding permission. The theory is a little different, here — there are some trademark-related claims that… well, anyway we’ll see if the court doesn’t tell them to let the door hit them on the ass on the way out.

But as a longtime devotee of literary-estate intrigue, I’m already sensing an interesting fight.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →