MILLS MUSIC, INC. V. SNYDER, 469 U. S. 153 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder, 469 U.S. 153 (1985)

Mills Music, Inc. v. Snyder

No. 83-1153

Argued October 9, 1984

Decided January 8, 1985

469 U.S. 153


This case involves a controversy between petitioner publisher and respondent heirs of the author of the 1923 copyrighted song "Who's Sorry Now" over the division of royalty income that the sound recordings of the song have generated. In 1940, the author assigned his entire interest in all renewals of the copyright to petitioner in exchange for an advance royalty and petitioner's commitment to pay a cash royalty on sheet music and 50 percent of all net royalties that petitioner received for mechanical reproductions. In 1951, petitioner registered a renewal copyright. Thereafter, petitioner directly or through an agent issued over 400 licenses to record companies authorizing the use of the song in phonograph records, and obligating the companies to pay royalties to petitioner, who in turn was obligated to pay 50 percent of those royalties to the author. Separate recordings were then prepared that generated the disputed royalty income. After the author's death, respondents succeeded to his interest in the arrangement with petitioner. Pursuant to 304(c)(2) of the Copyright Act, as revised in 1976, respondents terminated the author's grant to petitioner of rights in the renewal copyright. Under § 304(c)(6), this termination caused all rights "covered by the terminated grant" to revert to respondents, except that under § 304 (c)(6)(A) a

"derivative work prepared under the authority of the grant before its termination may continue to be utilized under the terms of the grant after its termination."

The sound recordings in question come within the statutory definition of a "derivative work." When respondents demanded of petitioner's agent that the royalties on the recordings be remitted to them, the agent placed the disputed funds in escrow and brought an interpleader action in Federal District Court, which entered judgment for petitioner. The court held that the recordings had been "prepared under authority of the grant" from the author to petitioner, that the statute made no distinction between grantees who themselves make or own derivative works and those who license others to do so, that therefore the terms of the agreement that had been in effect prior to the termination governed the record companies' obligation to pay royalties, and that under those agreements petitioner and respondents were each entitled to a 50 percent share in the net royalty. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the § 304(c)(6)(A) exception preserved only the

Page 469 U. S. 154

grants from petitioner to the record companies; that the reversion of the copyright to respondents carried with it petitioner's right to collect the royalties payable under those grants; that § 304 was enacted for the benefit of authors and that the exception was designed to protect "utilizers" of derivative works; that, because petitioner was neither an author nor a "utilizer," it was not a member of either class that § 304 was intended to benefit; and that the legislative history indicated that Congress had not contemplated a situation in which the authority to prepare derivative works was derived from two successive grants rather than a single grant directly from an author to a "utilizer."

Held: Petitioner is entitled pursuant to § 304(c)(6)(A) to a share of the royalty income in dispute under the terms of the author's grant to petitioner in 1940. A consistent reading of the word "grant" in the text of § 304 (c)(6)(A) encompasses that grant. Nothing in the legislative history or the language of the statute indicates that Congress intended to draw a distinction between authorizations to prepare derivative works that are based on a single direct grant and those that are based on successive grants. Rather, the consequences of a termination that § 304 authorizes do not apply to derivative works that are protected by the § 304(c)(6)(A) exception. The boundaries of that exception are defined by reference to the scope of the privilege that had been authorized under the terminated grant and by reference to the time the derivative works were prepared. The record companies' derivative works involved in this case are unquestionably within those boundaries. Pp. 469 U. S. 164-178.

720 F.2d 733, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER C.J.,and POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 469 U. S. 178.

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