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O'Neill v. General Film Co.

171 A.D. 854 (1916)

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O'Neill v. General Film Co.

New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division

171 A.D. 854 (1916)

Facts

In 1845, Alexander Dumas published The Count of Monte Cristo (the novel), and in 1870, Charles Fechter wrote a manuscript for a dramatization (the dramatization) based on the novel. The dramatization was publicly performed in England and, as required by English law, a printed copy of the unpublished manuscript was filed with the appropriate office. Fechter subsequently came to the US and performed the dramatization based on the unpublished manuscript until his death in 1879. Ultimately, in 1885, James O’Neill (plaintiff) purchased all rights to the dramatization from John Stetson and continued performances of the dramatization. In 1912, Famous Players Company (Famous)—with O’Neill’s consent—produced a motion picture based on the dramatization and registered a copyright on the motion picture. In 1913, General Film Company (defendant)—without O’Neill’s consent—produced a motion picture that it claimed was based on the novel but that included scenes from the dramatization that were not in the novel. O’Neill filed suit in equity to enjoin General Film from producing or exhibiting any performance or motion picture based on the dramatization, claiming that General Film’s motion picture violated O’Neill’s exclusive rights. General Film denied that its motion picture was based on the dramatization. However, General Film argued, that even if its motion picture was based on the dramatization, the publication and copyrighting of Famous’s motion picture as a derivative work of the dramatization’s manuscript constituted publication of the manuscript itself, which had therefore lost common-law protections pursuant to the Copyright Act of 1909 and placed the dramatization within the public domain. The trial court held that General Film’s motion picture was based on the dramatization and that it therefore infringed O’Neill’s copyright. The trial court awarded O’Neill damages. General Film appealed.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Laughlin, J.)

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