Stewart v. Abend

In 1945, author Cornell Woolrich agreed to assign the motion picture rights to several of his stories, including the one at issue, to petitioners’ predecessor in interest. He also agreed to renew the copyrights in the stories at the appropriate time, and to assign the same motion picture rights to the predecessor in interest for the 28-year renewal term provided by the Copyright Act of 1909. The film version of the story in question was produced and distributed in 1954. Woolrich died in 1968 without a surviving spouse or child, and before he could obtain the rights in the renewal term for petitioners as promised. In 1969, his executor renewed the copyright in the story and assigned the renewal rights to respondent Abend. Apparently in reliance on Rohauer v. Killiam Shows, Inc., 551 F.2d 484 (CA2) — which held that the owner of the copyright in a derivative work may continue to use the existing derivative work according to the original grant from the author of the preexisting work even if the grant of rights in the preexisting work lapsed — petitioners subsequently rereleased and publicly exhibited the film. Abend filed suit, alleging, among other things, that the rerelease infringed his copyright in the story because petitioners’ right to use the story during the renewal term lapsed when Woolrich died. The District Court granted petitioners’ motions for summary judgment based on Rohauer and the “fair use” defense. The Court of Appeals reversed, rejecting the reasoning of Rohauer. Relying on Miller Music Corp. v. Charles N. Daniels, Inc., 362 U. S. 373 — which held that assignment of renewal rights by an author before the time for renewal arrives cannot defeat the right of the author’s statutory successor to the renewal rights if the author dies before the right to renewal accrues — the court concluded that petitioners received from Woolrich only an expectancy in the renewal rights that never matured, and that his executor, as his statutory successor, was entitled to renew the copyright and to assign it to Abend. The court also determined that petitioners’ use of Woolrich’s story in their film was not fair use.

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