Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wants to Quote Movie Dialogue in Novel

Dear Rich: I don't see anything in your Getting Permission book on getting permission to quote dialog from films. I assume that the process is similar to getting permission to quote song lyrics, but it would be better if you covered this in detail. I want to quote with attribution some movie dialog in a novel I am writing. Any suggestions? Speaking of film dialogue, we were surprised recently when reading the French classic Pere Goriot to find a line about someone "making him an offer that he cannot refuse." Did Balzac travel to the 20th Century, watch the Godfather, return to the past and copy the movie dialogue for his novel? We guess we'll never know.
Right, you had a question. The rules for using film dialogue in a novel are the same as for all text uses (explained in Chapter 2 of the book). As you're probably aware, there is no fixed amount of words that you can use without permission, although some uses are so minimal as to be considered de minimis (scroll down). The difference with using film dialogue is that it's often difficult to figure who owns the rights and even harder to get permission for the use.
Why is it difficult to get permission for movie dialogue? Generally the studio (or a producer) owns all rights to the movie including the dialogue. But in some cases, screenwriters may retain rights. In other cases, if the movie were based upon a book, the author may retain certain rights. That's the challenge when using one layer from a multi-layered work -- determining who has the right to grant permission. Even if a studio does own the rights to the dialogue, you still have the practical problem of finding the person authorized to grant permission (and convincing that person not to hang up on you).
What's a novelist to do? If you're publishing the book yourself, you're probably less at risk because you won't be indemnifying against infringement. Publishers get uptight about stuff like that and insist on some security in the form of warranties and indemnity. On the other hand, a publisher may be able to assist you with getting rights and permissions from a studio. If you're on your own and you're still concerned about getting chased, consider whether you can make a realistic fair use claim. That is, can you demonstrate that your use of the dialog is transformative -- for example, Woody Allen's use of dialogue from Casablanca in Play It Again, Sam, was transformative (though Allen likely acquired permission for that and the film clips).
Speaking of great movie dialogue ... we're partial to Things Change (Don Ameche's swan song). It's got dialogue -- written by David Mamet and Shel Silverstein -- with some serious staying power.