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Stewart v. Abend

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Citation Edit

Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207, 14 U.S.P.Q.2d (BNA) 1614 (1990) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Abend acquired the renewal rights to the copyright in a short story that was the basis for the movie Rear Window made in 1954 by MCA. The author died before the renewal date. Abend renewed the copyright and filed a copyright infringement suit against the movie studio for its re-release of the movie during the renewal period.

Appellate Court Proceedings Edit

The issue before the court was whether a derivative work (in this case a movie) could continue to be exploited if the author of the underlying (non-work for hire) work (in this case a short story) died before the beginning of the renewal term (under the 1909 Act) and the copyright was properly renewed by his heirs (executor) – resulting in ownership of the copyright reverting to his heirs.

The Ninth Circuit refused to enjoin the defendants, and instead held that where great public injury would result from an injunction, or where “special circumstances” existed, the court might award a continuing royalty instead.[1]

We found that special circumstances existed in Abend because: the defendant had done nothing improper but had simply lost the right to the short story on a ‘technicality’ existing under the Copyright Act of 1909; an injunction would have prohibited the defendant from enjoying profits from its own creative efforts (i.e., creating the motion picture from the short story); and the public would be denied the opportunity to view a classic film.[2]

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

The U.S. Supreme Court held that: (1) when the author dies before the renewal period arrives, his statutory successors are entitled to the renewal rights even though the author has previously assigned the renewal rights to another party; (2) the owner of a derivative work does not retain the right to exploit that work when the death of the author causes the renewal rights in the preexisting work to revert to the statutory successors; and (3) a motion picture was not a fair use of the story.


  1. Abend v. MCA, Inc., 863 F.2d 1465, 1475 (9th Cir. 1988) (full-text).
  2. Cadence Design Sys., Inc. v. Avant! Corp., 125 F.3d 824, 829 (9th Cir. 1997) (full-text).

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