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Stewart v. Abend

United States Supreme Court
495 U.S. 207 (1990)


Cornell Woolrich wrote the story It Had to Be Murder (Murder) and assigned motion-picture rights to B.G. De Sylva Productions (De Sylva). The assignment included a provision requiring Woolrich to renew the copyrights in the works and assign the rights in the renewal term to De Sylva. De Sylva then sold its interests in Murder to Patron, Incorporated (Patron) (defendant), a production company jointly formed by Jimmy Stewart (defendant) and Alfred Hitchcock. Patron produced and distributed the film Rear Window, a derivative work of Murder. Woolrich died before the initial copyright term for Murder was eligible for renewal, and his estate was left to a corporate trustee. The trustee renewed the copyright for Murder and assigned the renewal rights to Sheldon Abend (plaintiff). Abend notified Patron of its copyright infringement in the renewal rights to Murder after Rear Window aired on the ABC television network (ABC). When Rear Window was licensed to ABC a second time, Abend filed suit for copyright infringement, but ultimately settled the case. After a circuit-court decision announced that copyright holders of derivative works do not need separate approval to continue to distribute a work during the renewal term, Patron released Rear Window in several new formats. Abend sued for copyright infringement based on the new distributions. The district court granted Stewart’s motion for summary judgment, but the court of appeals reversed the decision. Stewart petitioned for certiorari.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (O’Connor, J.)

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