108 F.2d 28 (2nd Cir. 1939), 65, Yardley v. Houghton Mifflin Co.

Docket Nº:65.
Citation:108 F.2d 28, 44 U.S.P.Q. 1
Party Name:YARDLEY v. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN CO., Inc.
Case Date:December 11, 1939
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Page 28

108 F.2d 28 (2nd Cir. 1939)

44 U.S.P.Q. 1

YARDLEY

v.

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN

CO., Inc.

No. 65.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.

December 11, 1939

Page 29

Sidney S. Bobbe, of New York City, for appellant.

Allan C. Bakewell and Thomas J. Byrne, both of New York City, for appellee.

Before SWAN, CHASE, and CLARK, Circuit Judges.

SWAN, Circuit Judge.

Before passing to a consideration of the interesting questions presented by this appeal it is desirable to state in outline the facts that give rise to them. The amended complaint seeks damages for infringement of a registered copyright of a mural picture painted by Charles Y. Turner and placed by him on the wall of the auditorium room of the Dewitt Clinton High School. Mr. Turner executed this painting pursuant to a written contract, dated January 14, 1904, between the City of New York and the general contractor for the erection of the school building, by the terms of which the city was to select the artist and the contractor was to pay him upon a certificate issued by the Superintendent of School Buildings, with the approval of the Committee on Buildings of the Board of Education, and to include such payment in the cost of the building. It is conceded that the mural was accepted and the artist received payment. The written contract between the city and the building contractor was silent as to who was to have the copyright of the painting to be made. Nor is there evidence of any agreement on this subject made by Mr. Turner with either the city or the building contractor. But the painting bears an inscription 'Copyright, C. Y. Turner, 1905,' and there is nothing to suggest that those words were not on it when it was first installed

Page 30

in the building. The district judge rightly assumed that they were. The evidence also shows that on October 30, 1905, Mr. Turner, 'as author, designer and proprietor' made copyright registration of the picture under R.S. Sec. 4952, as amended by the Act of March 3, 1905, 33 Stat. 1000. The term of such copyright expired October 29, 1933. Mr. Turner died on December 31, 1918, and the plaintiff, Mrs. Yardley, who was one of his surviving sisters, sought and obtained in 1932 a purported renewal of the original copyright. She does not, however, ground her present claim upon such renewal, which is now conceded to be invalid, but upon an assignment of the original copyright, and of rights of action, thereunder, executed by her brother's executor in February 1937. The executor, who took office in 1919, served continuously until January 30, 1937, when he was duly discharged by a decree of the surrogate of New York County. Such decree authorized him to transfer to Mrs. Yardley for a consideration of twenty-five dollars, 'all existing copyrights of decedent and rights to renewal of those that are renewable, including all benefits that have been and may hereafter be derived therefrom, and all rights of action, if any, thereon. ' On February 27, 1937, Mrs. Yardley obtained from the executor an assignment of several specified copyrights, including the one in suit, and of all rights of action for infringements thereof, past or present. Shortly thereafter she brought the present suit, charging the defendant with infringement, beginning in 1924 and continuing through subsequent years, by publishing a reproduction of the painting in two history books for school use, which went through several editions. By reason of the statute of limitations the editions complained of were limited upon the trial to those brought out between March 30, 1931 (six years before the date of suit) and the date of expiration of the copyright, October 29, 1933. In answering the complaint the defendant filed a counterclaim which asked for a declaration that the purported renewal of the copyright, which Mrs. Yardley had sought and obtained in 1932, was void. After final hearing the district court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint, sustained the defendant's counterclaim, and awarded costs and a counsel fee to the defendant. From this decree the plaintiff has appealed.

One ground upon which the district court dismissed the complaint was that the surrogate's decree authorizing Turner's executor to transfer to the plaintiff 'all existing copyrights of decedent' and all rights of action thereon, did not include the copyright in question because it was not an 'existing' copyright, having expired in 1933, and, since the executor's assignment went further than the decree authorized, the plaintiff obtained thereby no valid title to the cause of action sued on. The appellant argues with considerable persuasive force that such an interpretation of the surrogate's decree is too narrow, and that in any event an executor has power to sell and assign personal property of the estate without court authorization 1 and, therefore, effect should be given to the executor's express assignment of the copyright in suit, regardless of what the surrogate's decree authorized. But we find it...

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