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By the common law, the author of a writing possesses the sole and exclusive right to publish it, but upon and after the first publication the writing may be published by anyone including the author, since the writing has gone into the public domain. The copyright statute extends the author's sole and exclusive right in accordance with its terms and provisions. U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8. In other words, it reserves the writing from the public domain for the effective period of the copyright.
Daniel Hammett, the composer of a serial fiction, and Alfred Knopf, the publisher of the fiction, executed an instrument to Warner Bros., as purchaser, granting certain defined rights to the use of the fictional character in moving pictures, radio, and television. Thereafter, Hammett used the characters with their names and contracted with others for such use. Warner claimed infringement of copyright and unfair use and competition by such re-use and, as well, for infringement of parts of the story and the whole of the writing inclusive of characters and their names. Hammett and the other defendants denied infringement or unfair use and competition on any count. The trial court denied relief to Warner, and held that a contract assigning limited rights in a novel for use in motion pictures, television, and radio, did not prohibit the author of the novel from using the same characters in future works. Hammett was also awarded a declaratory judgment declaring his rights. Warner appealed.
By assigning limited rights over the serial fiction to Warner, was Hammett prohibited from using the fictional characters in future works?
The court held that the contract, which clearly enumerated the rights conveyed in the assignment, did not mention the exclusive right to use of characters and their names, and therefore could not be construed to include them. The court further stated that even if Hammett had assigned complete copyrights to the story, that assignment would not prevent him from the future use of the characters in new stories. The court based this conclusion on historical practice of serial fiction writing which carried a character's name and individualism into succeeding stories. Finally, the court held that new novels written by Hammett did not infringe on assigned copyrights when the stories were not identical. The court affirmed the judgment as modified.