Stewart v. Abend - Oral Argument - January 09, 1990

Stewart v. Abend

Media for Stewart v. Abend

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 24, 1990 in Stewart v. Abend

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 09, 1990 in Stewart v. Abend

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Stewart v. Abend.

Mr. Petrich.

Louis P. Petrich:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case for copyright infringement requires the Court to reconcile a conflict between two competing copyrights conferred under the same section, Section 24, of the 1909 Copyright Act.

On the same essential facts of this case, both the Second and the Ninth Circuits have reached very different accommodations of these interests.

In this case, in 1942, a short story named, or entitled Rear Window, was first written and copyrighted by Cornell Woolrich in 1942.

In 1953, the actor Jimmy Stewart and the director, Alfred Hitchcock, teamed up to form a production company to make a motion picture based in part on that short story.

They obtained a prior assignment from the author of the short story, which gave them the right to make all motion picture versions of the short story, and to continue to exhibit those motion picture versions throughout the life of the original or initial term of copyright obtained by the short story author, as well as any renewal term of that author.

Byron R. White:

That was an express assignment of the right to renew?

Louis P. Petrich:

Yes, Your Honor.

It's reproduced in the--

Byron R. White:

And if the author hadn't died, could the assignee have exercised that right or would the author have had to do so?

Louis P. Petrich:

--It has always been the law that only the statutory successor named in the statute may exercise the right.

Byron R. White:

So this case would be the same, in your view, if he had... never had assigned the renewal right?

Louis P. Petrich:


If he had not assigned the renewal right, we would not claim that we had a right to use the work during his renewal term.

Byron R. White:

Well, even if he had assigned it, you couldn't exercise it.

Louis P. Petrich:

We could not renew.

The law provides that only the people named in the statute may actually renew it.

Byron R. White:

Well, what if he didn't renew it?

Louis P. Petrich:

Well, I misunderstood your question.

If he did not renew it, the underlying story would have gone into the public domain and anyone could use the story.

In 1954, the film company created a motion picture based on the story, adding new characters, new incidents and new dialogue.

That motion picture was separately copyrighted under Section 7 of the 1909 act.

In 1968, the author of the short story died and his copyright was renewed the following year by his executor and became effective in 1970.

In 1982, the owners of the film copyright renewed their copyright under section... the same Section 24.

And now Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock's estate own 90 percent of the film copyright.

In 1983, relying on a decision of the Second Circuit, the film was re-released as a part of a five-film retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock films, many of which included the talents of Jimmy Stewart.

Mr. Abend, the respondent here, in the meantime, had acquired rights from the executor of the short story author and he brought this claim, contending that the death of the author before renewal, as well as the renewal by the executor, operated as a matter of copyright law and policy to terminate any rights that the films owners had to continue using their film.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Abend is an agent?