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FOX FILM CORP. V. KNOWLES, 261 U. S. 326 (1923)

U.S. Supreme Court

Fox Film Corp. v. Knowles, 261 U.S. 326 (1923)

Fox Film Corp. v. Knowles

Nos. 310, 311

Argued February 27, 1923

Decided March 12, 1923

261 U.S. 326




1. Under § 24 of the Copyright Act of 1909, which allows renewals of copyrights subsisting when it went into effect with the proviso that application shall be made and registered within the period of one year prior to expiration of the existing term, an author's executor may renew within that year although the author died before its commencement, so that the right to file application did not accrue in his lifetime. P. 261 U. S. 328.

2. The statute intends that an executor, there being no widow, widower, or child, shall have the same right as his testator might have exercised had he continued to survive. P. 261 U. S. 329.

3. It is no novelty for an executor to be given rights by statute which his testator could not have exercised while he lived. P. 261 U. S. 330.

279 F. 1018 reversed.

Page 261 U. S. 327

Certiorari to decrees of the circuit court of appeals affirming the district court in dismissing bills brought by the petitioner, as assignee of copyright privileges, to restrain infringements and for accounting and damages.

Page 261 U. S. 328

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

These are bills in equity brought by the petitioner to restrain dramatic performances based upon two poems, "Over the Hills to the Poor House" and "Over the Hills from the Poor House," and for an account and damages. The author of the poems, Will Carlton, held a renewed copyright for them which expired on or about February 21, 1915. He died on December 18, 1912, testate, leaving all his property to Norman E. Goodrich and appointing him sole executor. On January 21, 1915, the executor applied for and obtained a renewal of the copyright to February 21, 1929. Later the exclusive right to dramatize the poems was assigned to the plaintiff. The only defense relied upon here is that the statutes did not give the executor a right of renewal, and that therefore the copyright has expired. The bills were dismissed upon this ground by the district court, (No. 310) 274 F. 731; (No. 311) 275 F. 582, and the decrees were affirmed on the authority of Silverman v. Sunrise Pictures Corporation, 273 F. 909, by the circuit court of appeals. 279 F. 1018.

This copyright was subsisting when the Copyright Act of March 4, 1909, c. 320, 35 Stat. 1075, went into effect. By § 24 of that statute, copyrights so subsisting

"may, at the expiration of the term provided for under existing law, be renewed and extended by the author of such work if still living, or the widow, widower, or children of the author, if the author be not living, or if such author, widow, widower, or children be not living, then by the author's executors, or in the absence of a will, his next of kin, for a further period such that the entire term shall be equal to that secured by this Act, including the

Page 261 U. S. 329

renewal period: . . . Provided, that application for such renewal and extension shall be made to the copyright office and duly registered therein within one year prior to the expiration of the existing term."

The argument on which the statute was held not to apply to the present case was that the renewal creates a new estate, White-Smith Music Pub. Co. v. Goff, 187 F. 247; that the estate is purely statutory, and does not exist until within one year prior to the expiring of the existing term; that therefore Carlton, dying more than a year before that moment, had nothing to bequeath, and that the statute gave nothing to the executor except when the testator had the right to renew at the moment of his decease. It is argued that the executor is mentioned only to provide for the case of the testator's dying within the year without having exercised his right to renew, and thus having a right that the statute allowed him to transmit.

All of these propositions may be admitted (for the purposes of the present argument only) except the last. But we see no sufficient reason for thus limiting the right of the executor. The section, read as a whole, would express to the ordinary reader a general intent to secure the continuance of the copyright after the author's death, and nonetheless so if the actual continuance was effected by creating a new estate, or if the beneficiaries in certain cases are pointed out. No one doubts that, if Carlton had died leaving a widow, she could have applied as the executor did, and executors are mentioned alongside of the widow with no suggestion in the statute that, when executors are the proper persons, if anyone, to make the claim, they cannot make it whenever a widow might have made it. The next of kin come after the executors. Surely they again have the same rights that the widow would have had. The limitation is derived from a theory that the statute cannot have intended the executor to take

Page 261 U. S. 330

unless he took what the testator already had. We should not have derived that notion from the section, which seems to us to have the broad intent that we have expressed, and the words specially applicable seem to us plainly to import that, if there is no widow or child, the executor may exercise the power that the testator might have exercised if he had been alive. The executor represents the person of his testator, Littleton, § 237, and it is no novelty for him to be given rights that the testator could not have exercised while he lived. Green v. Ekins, 2 Atk. 473, 476. A familiar illustration is to be found in the Employers' Liability Act, which gives to personal representatives a new cause of action for causing death, although the foundation is the original wrongful injury to the deceased. Michigan Central R. Co. v. Vreeland, 227 U. S. 59, 227 U. S. 68-70.

Decrees reversed.

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