Little v. Hall
59 U.S. 165 (1855)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Little v. Hall, 59 U.S. 18 How. 165 165 (1855)

Little v. Hall

59 U.S. (18 How.) 165

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED

STATES FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

On the 27th of December, 1847, George F. Comstock was appointed state reporter under a statute of the State of New York, which office he held until the 27th of December, 1851.

During his term of office, viz. in 1850, he, in conjunction with the comptroller and secretary of the state, acting under the authority of a statute, made an agreement with certain persons that for five years to come, they should have the publication of the decisions of the Court of Appeals and the exclusive benefit of the copyright.

At the expiration of Mr. Comstock's term, viz. on the 27th of December, 1851, he had in his possession sundry manuscript notes, and the decisions made at the ensuing January term, were also placed in his hands to be reported. Out of these materials he made a volume and sold it upon his own private account.

Whatever remedy the first assignees may have had against Mr. Comstock individually, they are not to be considered as the legal owners of the manuscript under the copyright act of congress, and are not entitled to an injunction to prevent the publication and sale of the volume.

The case is stated in the opinion of the Court.

Page 59 U. S. 169

MR. JUSTICE McLEAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A want of jurisdiction to sustain this appeal was alleged by counsel, as it does not appear from the record that the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of two thousand dollars, but this objection was obviated by an affidavit which stated that the amount claimed by the plaintiffs exceeds that sum.

This bill was filed under the copyright act to enjoin the defendants from publishing and selling the fourth volume of Comstock's Reports.

The plaintiffs, who are publishers and booksellers at Albany, New York, represent that on the 20th of April, 1850, they entered into an agreement with Washington Hunt, Comptroller, Christopher Morgan, Secretary, and George F. Comstock, Reporter of the State of New York, as required by statute, that they should have the publication, for the term of five years, of the decisions of the Court of Appeals, and the exclusive benefit of the copyright, to be taken out in behalf of the state, of the notes and references, and other matter furnished by the reporter connected with said decisions, and that instrument was declared to be an assignment and transfer of the copyright of the matter so published, which should consist of volumes of not less than five hundred pages each.

On the 27th of December, 1847, George F. Comstock was appointed state reporter for three years and until his successor was appointed and qualified, at a salary of $2,000 per annum. He was to have, under the law, no interest in the reports, but the copyright of his notes, references, and abstracts of arguments was to be taken in the name of the Secretary of State for the benefit of the people of New York. The law forbade the reporter and all other persons from acquiring a copyright in the reports, but declared they might be republished by any person.

Mr. Comstock's term of office expired on the 27th of December,

Page 59 U. S. 170

1850, and his successor, Henry R. Selden Esq., was appointed to succeed him on the 17th of January, 1851. Mr. Comstock questioned the validity of his appointment, and the matter was referred to the judges of the Court of Appeals, then in session at Albany, who decided that Mr. Selden was duly appointed. He took the oath on the 21st of January, 1851, and immediately entered upon the duties of his office.

Mr. Comstock published three volumes of his reports, and having in his hands at the expiration of his office opinions of the court to make half or more of another volume, on the suggestion of the judges, and with the consent of Mr. Selden, the opinions of the January term were delivered to him, that he might complete his fourth volume. At the time of this arrangement, he had made no preparation, by notes &c., for this volume, and did not commence the work until some months afterwards.

After he had made considerable advance in the preparation of this volume, he invited proposals for the purchase of the copyright, and although the plaintiffs, in conversation with him, said they would give as much as any other persons, yet they made no proposal, as they were apprehensive it might affect the contract for the publication of the reports as above stated. The defendants purchased the copyright, for which they paid $2,500. At a large expense, they prepared stereotypes for the work and printed it.

The plaintiffs, so soon as the volume was published, commenced a republication of it, and filed this bill to enjoin the defendants from selling their edition. Previous to the publication of the third volume of Comstock's Reports, the Secretary of State had the copyright of the headnotes, references &c., entered by the clerk of the district court of the United States for the benefit of the state, and the complainants had a similar entry made, to secure the copyright to the state of the fourth volume. This was not done by the Secretary of State as the law directed, and it seems it was not sanctioned by him, as he was doubtful whether he had the power to do so.

The 9th section of the Copyright Act of the 3d of February, 1831, provides

"That anyone who shall print or publish any manuscript whatever without the consent of the author or legal proprietor first obtained as aforesaid . . . shall be liable to suffer and pay to the author or proprietor all damages occasioned by such injury,"

&c.

At common law, an author has a right to his unpublished manuscripts the same as to any other property he may possess, and this statute gives him a remedy by injunction to protect this right.

Page 59 U. S. 171

A formal transfer of a copyright by the supplementary act of the 30th of June, 1834, is required to be proved and recorded as deeds for the conveyance of land, and such record operates as notice.

After the expiration of his official term, Comstock did not and could not act as reporter. His successor, having been appointed and qualified, discharged the duties of the office and received the salary. As many of the opinions of the court were in the hands of Comstock when his office expired, it might have been made a question whether he could not publish the fourth volume as reporter. This would have given to the state a continuous report of the decisions of the Court of Appeals, as the law contemplated, with the copyright of the notes &c., secured for the benefit of the people of the state. If the opinions of the court came into his hands during his continuance in office, there would seem to be no impropriety in his publishing them as filling up the measure of his term.

But it seems a different view was taken by the late reporter. As his term of office had expired, he was unwilling to publish the fourth volume without compensation for his labor. This changed his relations with the plaintiffs, as that contract was made as reporter, and on the supposition that he would be continued in that office. Under that contract, the complainants had the advantage of publishing the reports for the price stipulated, but anyone was at liberty to republish them.

The fourth volume was published by Mr. Comstock as an individual, he having secured to himself the copyright. This probably insured to the purchaser of the right the republication of the work for the term of twenty-eight years. Under the agreements made with the plaintiffs, they had only the profit of their contract.

Whether the plaintiffs may not have a remedy on their contract with Mr. Comstock in the local tribunals of the state is not a question before us. Our only inquiry is whether any relief can be given by this Court under the copyright act. Where a case arises under that act, we have jurisdiction though both the parties, as in this case, are citizens of the same state. But if the act do not give the remedy sought, we can only take jurisdiction on the ground that the controversy is between citizens of different states.

Were the plaintiffs the legal proprietors of the manuscript from which the fourth volume of Comstock's Reports was published? The plaintiffs rely upon their contract with the Comptroller, the Secretary of State, and Mr. Comstock the Reporter. In that contract it is said

"this instrument is declared to be an

Page 59 U. S. 172

assignment and transfer of the copyright of the matter so published to the parties of the second part."

This contract was made with Mr. Comstock as reporter, and the plaintiffs agreed to publish the work in volumes containing five hundred pages each, to have them well bound in calf, the types, paper, and the entire execution, to be equal to Denio's Reports, the work to be done under the superintendence of the reporter, copies to be furnished to certain officers of the state, and the publishers were to keep the volumes for sale at two dollars and fifty cents per copy, and in all things they were bound to comply with the statutes of the state.

Comstock could not have published the work as reporter without the consent of the Court of Appeals and also the Secretary of State, who was required to secure the copyright to the state, and for his labor in preparing the notes, references &c. and superintending the printing he could have received no compensation.

Without saying what effect might have been given to the contract had the relation of the parties remained unchanged, we are unable to say, as the case now stands before us, that the plaintiffs were the legal owners of the manuscript within the copyright law. The contract was made by Comstock as reporter, whose duties were regulated by law, and the obligations of the complainants as publishers were embodied in the contract and were incompatible with any publication on private account.

The entire labor of the work was performed by Comstock not as reporter, but on his own account. It is, we think, not a case for a specific execution of the contract, and in effect that is the object of the bill. This result has not been brought about by the acts of Comstock. He may have been imprudent in extending his contract unconditionally beyond the term of his office. But in doing so, he has an apology, if not an excuse, by being associated in making the contract with two high functionaries of the state. Under the changed relation of the parties, the plaintiffs cannot be considered as the legal owners of the manuscript for the purposes of the contract under the copyright law.

Whatever obligation may arise from the contract under the circumstances as against Comstock must be founded on his failure to furnish the manuscripts to the plaintiffs, and of such a case we can take no jurisdiction as between the parties on the record.

The decree of the circuit court is affirmed.

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