Law School Case Brief
Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp - 81 F.2d 49 (2d Cir. 1936)
In its broader outline a plot is never copyrightable, for it is plain beyond per adventure that anticipation as such cannot invalidate a copyright. Borrowed the work must indeed not be, for a plagiarist is not himself pro tanto an "author." But though a copyright is less vulnerable than a patent, the owner's protection is more limited, for just as he is no less an "author" because others have preceded him, so another who follows him, is not a tort-feasor unless he pirates his work. If the copyrighted work is therefore original, the public demesne is important only on the issue of infringement; that is, so far as it may break the force of the inference to be drawn from likeness between the work and the putative piracy. If defendant has had access to other material, which would have served him as well, his disclaimer becomes more plausible.
Plaintiffs, Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes, wrote a play, "Dishonored Lady," about a murder trial based on historical facts of a mid-19th century Scotch woman. Plaintiffs filed an action alleging copyright infringement, arguing that Defendant Metro-Goldwyn Production appropriated Plaintiffs' play and its use in Defendant's motion picture, "Letty Lynton." Plaintiffs also sought to enjoin any performance of the film. The trial court dismissed the complaint, finding that Defendant's film appropriated only historical elements from the play for which there could be no assertable copyright, such as its general themes, motives, or ideas.
Were the authors entitled to copyright protection for an original authorship if the works were deviated from historical facts?
The appellate court reversed holding that plaintiffs' original authorship of certain elements, as deviating from the historical facts, were entitled to copyright protection. Further, the court ruled that because Defendant's film substantially copied those protected elements, Defendant was liable for infringement, and the injunction was thus granted.
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