Law School Discussion

Calling all Copyright Students!

Calling all Copyright Students!
« on: March 03, 2006, 10:37:37 PM »
I know this is lame.... But could someone explain the ruling in Stewart v. Abend 495 U.S. 207??

Re: Calling all Copyright Students!
« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2006, 06:37:30 AM »
We haven't covered that case yet, but I'll take a stab.

A couple intro things, since I don't know if you have copyright or not. First, under the statute in effect at the time the original author wrote the story at issue, the copyright term was 28 years. The copyright could be renewed during the last year of the term for another 28 years. Second, the rights granted under copyright are the rights to reproduce, to prepare derivative works (eg., movies), to distribute copies, to perform, and to display publicly.

The original author wrote a magazine story, and he granted the derivative works rights to producers who made the story into a movie. ("Rear Window", by the way; good film!) As part of that agreement, he was to renew the copyright at the end of the term. He did not renew, however, because he died. His executor renewed the copyright, and assigned the renewal rights to Abend.

The next time "Rear Window" aired on TV, Abend informed those who owned the rights to the movie that he owned the renewal rights, and that their distribution of the movie infringed on his rights. Stewart (with holder of Hitchcock's rights, etc.) also licensed to another TV network to show the movie. These cases went away upon a cash settlement.

Then, the second circuit decided Rohauer. (Rohauer v. Killiam Shows, Inc., 551 F.2d 484) That case said that the owner of a derivative work can keep using the derivative work even after the original grant (the 28 years in this case) lapses. Stewart, et al., figured they were in the clear, and started wider distribution. Abend didn't agree, and sued again for copyright infringement.

The original rights (those Abend got by assignment from the author's estate) weren't extinguished with the incorporation into the derivative work. Since the author died before renewal period, the grant of rights to Stewart (et al.) in the pre-existing work lapsed; this meant that those rights expired and Stewart no longer had the rights to use those portions of the pre-existing work incorporated into the derivative work. So, the continued distribution of the derivative work was done without the grant of rights from the copyright holder and did constitute copyright infringement.

This holding overruled Rohauer.

(Stevens dissented, saying that congressional intent with the 1909 act was to make derivative works that became completely independent of the original, therefore a derivative work is a new work, which shouldn't lapse when the original work lapses and that the derivative work should have its own property right.)