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HURN ET AL. v. OURSLER ET AL.

decided: April 17, 1933.

HURN ET AL
v.
OURSLER ET AL.



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT.

Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Sutherland

[ 289 U.S. Page 239]

 MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners brought this suit to enjoin respondents from publicly producing, presenting or performing a play called "The Spider," on the ground that it infringed a copyrighted play of petitioners, called "The Evil Hour." There was also a prayer for damages and an accounting. The bill, as amended, alleged that "The Evil Hour" had been composed by petitioners and duly copyrighted under the laws of the United States; that the play thereafter was revised, but the revision was uncopyrighted; that the play, both in its copyrighted and its revised uncopyrighted form, was submitted to certain of the respondents, who considered and discussed its production; that the feature of the play consisted in the representation of a spiritualistic seance on the stage, with the audience taking part therein; that respondents were the owners of "The Spider," also copyrighted, but as originally produced containing no representation of a spiritualistic seance of any kind; that respondents, instead of producing petitioners' play, altered their own by incorporating therein the idea of a spiritualistic seance on the stage, and also certain incidental "business and effects" and certain portions of "The Evil Hour"; that their action in that respect was a violation of the copyright laws of the United States and also constituted "unfair business practices and unfair competition against the [petitioners]." The parties are citizens of the same state.

The trial court, considering the claim of infringement on the merits, found that "The Spider" did not infringe in any way "The Evil Hour," in contravention of the copyright law of the United States, and concluded that

[ 289 U.S. Page 240]

     in view thereof, the court was without jurisdiction to entertain the allegations in so far as they were based upon claims other than for a violation of the copyright law. A decree followed dismissing the bill. The circuit court of appeals affirmed upon the authority of cases cited. 61 F.2d 1031.

It is apparent from the language of the trial court that the claim of unfair competition in respect of the copyrighted play, as well as in respect of the uncopyrighted version, was rejected not on the merits but for lack of jurisdiction. In that view the decree of the court was assailed and defended here.

One. We consider the question first from the standpoint of the copyrighted play. While, as presently will appear, the claim of unfair competition is without merit and the dismissal must stand in any event, it is important that if the determination of the court was put upon the wrong ground we should so declare, that it may not be followed as a precedent.

The unfair competition in respect of the copyrighted play, according to the allegations, results from the same acts which constitute the infringement and is inseparable therefrom. The court below proceeded upon the theory that the allegations of the bill in respect of infringement presented a substantial federal question. Certainly, the question is not plainly unsubstantial; and the jurisdiction of the federal court was rightly upheld. Disposal of the infringement, therefore, on the merits was proper; and the precise question for determination is whether the claim of unfair competition was properly dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, or, likewise, should have been considered and disposed of on the merits.

A multitude of cases in the lower federal courts have dealt with the question in its various phases and have reached different conclusions. The opinions present a great variety of views and of differences. We shall not

[ 289 U.S. Page 241]

     undertake to review these cases. A few out of many are mentioned in the footnote*fn* as illustrative of the confusion and as indicating the importance of attempting to formulate some rule on the subject. And to that end we first direct ...


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