618 F.2d 972 (2nd Cir. 1980), 692, Hoehling v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

Docket Nº:692, Docket 79-7704.
Citation:618 F.2d 972
Party Name:A. A. HOEHLING, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., and Michael MacDonald Mooney, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:March 25, 1980
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

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618 F.2d 972 (2nd Cir. 1980)

A. A. HOEHLING, Plaintiff-Appellant,


UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., and Michael MacDonald Mooney,


No. 692, Docket 79-7704.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

March 25, 1980

Argued Feb. 27, 1980.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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James C. Eastman, Washington, D. C., for plaintiff-appellant.

Coudert Bros., New York City (Eugene L. Girden, New York City, of counsel), for defendant-appellee Universal City Studios, Inc.

Peter A. Flynn, and Myron M. Cherry, Chicago, Ill. (Cherry, Flynn & Kanter, Chicago, Ill., Hervey M. Johnson, White Plains, N. Y.), and James J. McEnroe, New York City (Watson, Leavenworth, Kelton & Taggert, New York City), for defendant-appellee Michael M. Mooney.

Before KAUFMAN, Chief Judge, TIMBERS, Circuit Judge, and WERKER, District Judge. [*]


A grant of copyright in a published work secures for its author a limited monopoly over the expression it contains. The copyright provides a financial incentive to those who would add to the corpus of existing knowledge by creating original works. Nevertheless, the protection afforded the copyright holder has never extended to history, be it documented fact or explanatory hypothesis. The rationale for this doctrine is that the cause of knowledge is best served when history is the common property of all, and each generation remains free to draw upon the discoveries and insights of the past. Accordingly, the scope of copyright in historical accounts is narrow indeed, embracing no more than the author's original expression of particular facts and theories already in the public domain. As the case before us illustrates, absent wholesale usurpation of another's expression, claims of copyright infringement where works of history are at issue are rarely successful.


This litigation arises from three separate accounts of the triumphant introduction, last voyage, and tragic destruction of the Hindenburg, the colossal dirigible constructed in Germany during Hitler's reign. The zeppelin, the last and most sophisticated in a fleet of luxury airships, which punctually floated its wealthy passengers from the Third Reich to the United States, exploded into flames and disintegrated in 35 seconds as it hovered above the Lakehurst, New Jersey Naval Air Station at 7:25 p. m. on May 6, 1937. Thirty-six passengers and

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crew were killed but, fortunately, 52 persons survived. Official investigations conducted by both American and German authorities could ascertain no definitive cause of the disaster, but both suggested the plausibility of static electricity or St. Elmo's Fire, which could have ignited the highly explosive hydrogen that filled the airship. Throughout, the investigators refused to rule out the possibility of sabotage.

The destruction of the Hindenburg marked the concluding chapter in the chronicle of airship passenger service, for after the tragedy at Lakehurst, the Nazi regime permanently grounded the Graf Zeppelin I and discontinued its plan to construct an even larger dirigible, the Graf Zeppelin II.

The final pages of the airship's story marked the beginning of a series of journalistic, historical, and literary accounts devoted to the Hindenburg and its fate. Indeed, weeks of testimony by a plethora of witnesses before the official investigative panels provided fertile source material for would-be authors. Moreover, both the American and German Commissions issued official reports, detailing all that was then known of the tragedy. A number of newspaper and magazine articles had been written about the Hindenburg in 1936, its first year of trans-Atlantic service, and they, of course, multiplied many fold after the crash. In addition, two passengers Margaret Mather and Gertrud Adelt published separate and detailed accounts of the voyage, C. E. Rosendahl, commander of the Lakehurst Naval Air Station and a pioneer in airship travel himself, wrote a book titled What About the Airship?, in which he endorsed the theory that the Hindenburg was the victim of sabotage. In 1957, Nelson Gidding, who would return to the subject of the Hindenburg some 20 years later, wrote an unpublished "treatment" for a motion picture based on the deliberate destruction of the airship. In that year as well, John Toland published Ships in the Sky which, in its seventeenth chapter, chronicled the last flight of the Hindenburg. In 1962, Dale Titler released Wings of Mystery, in which he too devoted a chapter to the Hindenburg. 1

Appellant A. A. Hoehling published Who Destroyed the Hindenburg ?, a full-length book based on his exhaustive research in 1962. Mr. Hoehling studied the investigative reports, consulted previously published articles and books, and conducted interviews with survivors of the crash as well as others who possessed information about the Hindenburg. His book is presented as a factual account, written in an objective, reportorial style.

The first half recounts the final crossing of the Hindenburg, from Sunday, May 2, when it left Frankfurt, to Thursday, May 6, when it exploded at Lakehurst. Hoehling describes the airship, its role as an instrument of propaganda in Nazi Germany, its passengers and crew, the danger of hydrogen, and the ominous threats received by German officials, warning that the Hindenburg would be destroyed. The second portion, headed The Quest, sets forth the progress of the official investigations, followed by an account of Hoehling's own research. In the final chapter, spanning eleven pages, Hoehling suggests that all proffered explanations of the explosion, save deliberate destruction, are unconvincing. He concludes that the most likely saboteur is one Eric Spehl, a "rigger" on the Hindenburg crew who was killed at Lakehurst.

According to Hoehling, Spehl had motive, expertise, and opportunity to plant an explosive device, constructed of dry-cell batteries and a flashbulb, in "Gas Cell 4," the location of the initial explosion. An amateur photographer with access to flashbulbs, Spehl could have destroyed the Hindenburg to please his ladyfriend, a suspected communist dedicated to exploding the myth of Nazi invincibility.

Ten years later appellee Michael MacDonald Mooney published his book, The Hindenburg.

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Mooney's endeavor might be characterized as more literary than historical in its attempt to weave a number of symbolic themes through the actual events surrounding the...

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