William Faulkner’s Heirs Aim to Preserve His Legacy and Profit From It

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At a recent Sotheby's sale of fine books and manuscripts, an unusual lot came up for auction: William Faulkner's 1949 Nobel Prize and drafts of his acceptance speech, written on Algonquin Hotel stationery. In the speech, Faulkner said: "I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work…So this award is only mine in trust."

The medal and speech were among the most anticipated lots of the afternoon, estimated to sell together for $500,000 to $1 million. The bidding reached $425,000, but stalled. The prize went unsold and will remain with Faulkner's heirs.

Lee Caplin, the agent for the Faulkner estate, sighed when the auction ended. He'd been expecting a good price. After all, Francis Crick's heirs had just sold his Nobel Prize for $2 million in April. "And he didn't even invent DNA," muttered Mr. Caplin. "He just discovered it."

Mr. Caplin, a former federal prosecutor and independent movie producer, is leading a full-frontal assault to capitalize on Mr. Faulkner's works. As the legal representative of Faulkner Literary Rights LLC, which owns the rights to all of Mr. Faulkner's books and personal property, Mr. Caplin represents Mr. Faulkner's heirs—the three children of his late daughter, Jill Faulkner Summers, as well as her widower.

He's co-producing a slate of Faulkner films and television shows, including James Franco's coming movie "As I Lay Dying." He's filed two copyright-infringement lawsuits, one against Sony Pictures Classics for using a Faulkner quote in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" without permission, which a judge dismissed last week. And, along with the Faulkner family, he's tried to sell the Nobel Prize medallion—which had been the centerpiece of the "Mississippi Room" in the library at the University of Mississippi, where it was on loan for almost six decades.

The moves are raising complex questions about what happens to the works of great writers after they die. They also highlight the delicate balancing act between protecting a literary reputation and profiting from it. Some legal experts say the Sony lawsuit was frivolous. And the attempted sale of the Nobel Prize in particular hit the wrong note with officials at Ole Miss, which owns Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss. University officials now wonder if the family plans to sell more of the items inside the home.

"When Lee and the family reclaimed the medal, it set off bells of alarm," says Robert Saarnio, director of the Rowan Oak museum. "There was a feeling of anxiety across the university."

J.D. McClatchy, former president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the executor of the estates of a number of American poets, including James Merrill, says an executor's role should be to enhance the dead author's legacy rather than profit from it. "It sounds as though they are cannibalizing their beloved author," he says. "I don't think it does anything for Faulkner's reputation—but it's legal."

Mr. Caplin says he is merely attempting to create a revenue stream for the family that will endure long after the writer's copyrights run out. "In the wake of Jill's passing, some serious attention needed to be paid to estate planning," Mr. Caplin says.

For their part, Faulkner's heirs say they aim to both honor the writer's work and raise funds. "I think my grandfather would come back to haunt me in my dreams if he felt what we were doing was out of place," says Paul Summers, Mr. Faulkner's 57-year-old grandson who owns a vineyard in Charlottesville, Va. "This is a legacy we want to protect, but it's also a family asset."

It's a situation shared by the heirs of other prominent American writers who have faced the expiration of copyrights on their works. According to U.S. copyright law, works published between 1923 and 1978 are protected for 95 years after the publication date. Any work created after 1978, when the law changed, is protected for 70 years from the author's death. Descendants of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other writers from the same era will confront the same issue in coming years.

Faulkner wrote "The Sound and The Fury" in 1929, which means it will enter the public domain in 2024, at which time anyone can make the movie or republish the novel, free, without the permission of the estate.

Robert Spoo, a law professor at the University of Tulsa who specializes in copyright law, says the Faulkner family's efforts are understandable. "Any popular author whose works came out in the '20s and '30s—their works are all ripe for expiration in the next 20 years or so. They need to be looking toward their opportunities."

Some estates have come up with creative ways to wring cash out of their famous ancestors. Hemingway's heirs hired Marla Metzner to develop Hemingway merchandise including a line of housewares and furniture—such as a Masai curio cabinet and safari writing desk—designed to evoke places he lived and wrote about. Ms. Metzner says the line has grossed over $750 million in retail sales since 1999. (See article at right.)

Mr. Caplin says he, too, is interested in developing merchandise—the estate has licensed a limited-edition Faulkner pen set to Mont Blanc which retails for $2,080. He also hopes to develop a commemorative bourbon bottle. "I could easily see selling journals to students that have a reproduction of the map of Yoknapatawpha County, or a cool poster from James Franco's movie," he says.

William Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897. His great grandfather was a Civil War general nicknamed "The Old Colonel." His mother, Maud, was an avid reader. His nanny, Caroline Barr, known as "Mammy Callie," who had been with the Faulkner family for three generations, entranced the young William with stories of the Civil War.

The notoriously private Faulkner never graduated from high school, but created one of the most important literary legacies: the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on his home of Lafayette County, Miss. Populated with fictional versions of actual townspeople and their ancestors, he re-created the story of slavery and the decline of the Old South.

The Yoknapatawpha saga, which includes "The Sound and the Fury" and "As I Lay Dying," didn't sell well initially. A cult figure admired by scholars and critics, Mr. Faulkner supplemented his income by writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Hollywood screenplays, including "The Big Sleep," and "To Have and Have Not." When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he became recognized world-wide, and his books haven't been out of print since.

In 1957, Faulkner moved to Charlottesville, Va., where he was a writer in residence at the University of Virginia. There, his neighbor was a boy named Lee Caplin, who remembers Faulkner coming to his Little League baseball games. "He loved kids," says Mr. Caplin, who recalls a conversation he had as a 10-year-old boy with the famous writer. They were talking about Mr. Faulkner's short story, "The Bear," which is about a boy who goes hunting in the woods. Mr. Caplin recalls telling the writer: "It would make a great movie." Faulkner, who knew a thing or two about films, replied: "Not all books are meant to be movies."

"The Bear" began Mr. Caplin's lifelong interest in Faulkner's works. He's read them all more than once and most every conversation veers into an exegesis on Faulkner's work.

Mr. Caplin attended the University of Virginia law school and became a federal prosecutor and later worked in the National Endowment for the Arts under President Carter. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and started Picture Entertainment Corp., which developed made-for-TV movies and independent films.

Muhammad Ali, who had been a client of Mr. Caplin's father, Mortimer, a tax attorney, contracted with Mr. Caplin to develop and produce a movie based on his life. That project turned into the 2001 movie "Ali," starring Will Smith, which Mr. Caplin produced with Columbia Pictures.

In the '80s, Mr. Caplin asked Faulkner's daughter, Jill, about making a movie of her dad's novel "The Wild Palms." Harold Ober Literary Agency in New York then handled subsidiary rights to Faulkner's works and Mr. Caplin says he had a hard time getting them to return his calls. (Phyllis Westberg, an agent at Harold Ober, says Mr. Caplin's offer to make the film was too low.)

"Why don't you just take it over?" Jill said to him, recounts Mr. Caplin. When Jill died in 2008, her husband and children asked Mr. Caplin to handle the whole estate.

When he took over the movie rights, the first thing Mr. Caplin did was serve termination notices on studios that had the copyrights to various Faulkner films that had been produced, to little acclaim, years ago. "The films—they would just take a faint thread of the book and put in famous actors with varying degrees of Southern accents and create an arch Southern Gothic movie," says Mr. Caplin.

He's commissioned new screenplay adaptations, he says, to make the dense works more approachable. If the movies go into production, the Faulkners receive high-six-figure licensing fees, he says, plus royalties. Mr. Caplin plans to serve as a producer on any films. He says he doesn't receive a salary for his work but will take a percentage of whatever money he can make for them.

In Oxford, many folks are only a generation or two away from the writer, and others moved to the storied Southern town to be part of the thriving literary community that he spawned. Here, Mr. Caplin "is a question mark," says Larry Wells, the widower of Mr. Faulkner's niece, Dean Faulkner, who isn't a beneficiary of the estate. "As far as I know, he's competent," says Mr. Wells. "But the question is, what does he get out of all of this? Is it about William Faulkner? Or is it about Lee Caplin?"

Last year, Mr. Caplin filed two copyright suits in quick succession—against Sony Pictures Classics and the Washington Post. The Sony suit alleged that in the movie "Midnight in Paris," Owen Wilson's character says: "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past." That's a slightly mangled version of a quote from Mr. Faulkner's book, "Requiem for a Nun," in which Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Mr. Caplin argued that Sony's attorneys should have paid the family a fee for using the famous line, which he says sums up Mr. Faulkner's worldview.

Last week, Mississippi Federal Judge Michael Mills ruled that the case was without merit and dismissed it. "How Hollywood's flattering and artful use of literary allusion is a point of litigation, not celebration, is beyond this court's comprehension," the judge wrote in his decision.

Mr. Caplin says he's currently deciding whether or not to appeal.

A second suit, against the Washington Post and defense contractor Northrop Grumman took issue with the fact that the security firm used a Faulkner quote in a newspaper ad to promote the arms manufacturer. That case settled for an undisclosed sum.

Mr. Caplin hopes to make film adaptations of up to 20 of Faulkner's works, everything from "The Sound and the Fury" to short stories, like "The Bear." He teamed up with John Langley, the creator of the TV show "Cops," to co-produce for film Faulkner's "Sanctuary," the story of a Southern debutante who becomes a powerful prostitute. They hired Roger Avary, who co-wrote "Pulp Fiction," to write the screenplay adaptation. He is now seeking financing for the films.

James Franco came to Mr. Caplin six years ago wanting to get involved in a Faulkner project. After years of untangling the copyrights, (Sean Penn had at one point hoped to make a movie of the book), Mr. Caplin made a deal to co-produce the movie "As I Lay Dying," directed by and starring Mr. Franco. Vince Jolivette, Mr. Franco's producing partner, says it cost less than $5 million to make. The film, which received mixed reviews at Cannes, will be released in the U.S. by Millennium Films in October.

Next up: "The Sound and the Fury," which Mr. Franco says he hopes to direct, star in and start filming this fall. No financing is in place yet. Mr. Caplin is also planning to co-produce a TV series based on Yoknapatawpha County with David Milch, writer of "NYPD Blue" and "Deadwood," and Mr. Milch's daughter Olivia. The project is in development at HBO.

Last year, after coming across some letters and poems of Faulkner's in a backyard shed, the family decided to reassess their holdings and sell some of the items on loan to both Ole Miss and University of Virginia. "I think it was simply a decision by the family to try to perpetuate Mr. Faulkner's legacy, and also do some overall estate planning," says Larry Martin, the co-executor of the estate. "The two things are not mutually exclusive."

Nicole Bouche, who oversees the Faulkner collection at the University of Virginia, says the family's decision to sell was completely appropriate. "These items were on deposit with us for a time, and its not unusual that the family wanted them back," she says.

But officials at Ole Miss worry what the family may decide to sell next. The university bought Rowan Oak from Jill Faulkner Summers in 1973, but the furniture and personal effects within it belong to the family. "Rowan Oak doesn't have a future as a public site without the artifacts within," says the museum's director, Mr. Saarnio. More than 20,000 visitors a year come through the home.

Since the Nobel medallion was removed from the university library, Ole Miss sent out a call to donors in an effort to raise money to purchase the items within the home, including the typewriter where Faulkner poured his unique vision of the Deep South onto paper.

Mr. Summers, Faulkner's grandson, promises the contents of the home will never leave Rowan Oak. But Mr. Caplin says it's unlikely the family is going to give the items to the university. "There will have to be a transaction of some sort," Mr. Caplin says.