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Law School Case Brief

Stewart v. Abend - 495 U.S. 207, 110 S. Ct. 1750 (1990)


When an author dies before the renewal period arrives, his executor is entitled to the renewal rights, even though the author previously assigned his renewal rights to another party. An assignment by an author of his renewal rights made before the original copyright expires is valid against the world, if the author is alive at the commencement of the renewal period. If the author dies before that time, the next of kin obtain the renewal copyright free of any claim founded upon an assignment made by the author in his lifetime. These results follow not because the author's assignment is invalid but because he had only an expectancy to assign; and his death, prior to the renewal period, terminates his interest in the renewal which by 17 U.S.C.S. § 24 vests in the named classes. The right of renewal is contingent. It does not vest until the end of the original term.


The author of a pre-existing work agreed to assign the rights in his renewal copyright term to petitioners, owners of a derivative work, but the author died before the commencement of the renewal period. The author's executor renewed the copyright and assigned the renewal right to respondent, who brought an action for copyright infringement as a result of petitioners' continued release of the derivative work. The lower court found that the petitioners’ continued use constituted infringement. Consequently, petitioners appealed.


Did the petitioners’ continued use of the derivative work infringe the rights of the respondents to the same?




The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court, which found that petitioners' continued use constituted infringement. The Supreme Court held that the rights of the owner of a copyright in the derivative use of the pre-existing work were not extinguished once it was incorporated into the derivative work. Since the author died prior to the renewal period, the grant of rights to petitioners in the pre-existing work lapsed and petitioners' right to use those portions of the pre-existing work incorporated into the derivative work expired.

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