A Tale of Two Authors: Determining the Property Rights of Novels Suitable for the Theater



The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned the district court’s opinion and ordered that Roberto Ramos Perea, the playwright who adapted the novels by eminent Puerto Rican author Enrique Laguerre for the theater, no was not a true copyright owner. Perea v. Editorial Cultural Inc., Case Nos. 19-2119, -2129 (1st Cir. Sept. 13, 2021) (Thompson J.) The question before the Court was whether Editorial, a publishing house, was liable for copyright infringement after printing and sold 20,000 copies of theatrical adaptations of two novels (La Llamarada and La Resaca) written by Laguerre and adapted by Ramos.

In 2001, Laguerre signed a contract with Producciones Teatro Caribeño, authorizing Ramos to create the adaptation of La Resaca and retain moral rights (protecting the link between Ramos and his work). The parties contracted again in 2003 for the adaptation of La Llamarada. Laguerre and Editorial entered into a contract in 2002 which gave Editorial the right to print “an edition” of “the dramatic adaptation of La ResacaFor seven consecutive years from the first printing date. Editorial has been granted the right to print up to 25,000 copies of La Llamarada (the novel) in exchange for royalties.

During the action in the district court, both parties requested partial summary judgment on the infringement action. Editorial argued that, in accordance with the Laguerre-Caribeño contracts, Laguerre exclusively reserved the rights to print the adaptations, and Ramos was therefore not entitled to damages for infringement. Ramos argued that he owned the copyright in the adaptations and that he was entitled to compensation for infringement because “(1) Laguerre allowed Ramos to create the adaptations, so these creative works belong to him. , or, failing that, (2) La Resaca and La Llamarada was in the public domain when the adaptations were written (meaning they were available for public use) and as such, permission from Laguerre was not required. The district court eliminated the playwright, Ramos, as the copyright owner and, following a jury trial, issued a judgment against Editorial Cultural awarding damages to Laguerre’s heirs. In rejecting Ramos’ claim, the district court relied exclusively on the language of the Laguerre-Caribeño contracts, under which Laguerre retained the publishing rights. The issue on appeal concerned who owned the publishing rights to the adaptations when Editorial sold them in 2013.

The district court did not consider whether the novels were in the public domain when Ramos created his adaptations. Under the Copyright Act of 1909, works created before 1978 retained copyright protection for 28 years (plus an additional 28 years if renewed). The novels were written in 1935 (La Llamarada, not renewed) and 1949 (La Resaca, never registered with the Copyright Office). The First Circuit explained that it is clear that the two novels entered the public domain long before the contracts were signed.

Review of summary judgment orders de novo, The First Circuit found that when Ramos adapted the novels into the play’s scripts in 2001 and 2003, Laguerre had no copyright in any of those novels (or any works derived from them) and Ramos became the owner of the derivative works he created, with the exclusive authority to authorize the printing and sale of them.

Because the infringement issue was not contested at the summary judgment stage, the First Circuit overturned the order in favor of Editorial and ordered the entry of the summary judgment for Ramos. As a result, the modified judgment in favor of the heirs was set aside, substituting Ramos as principal plaintiff and awarding him all damages and costs.



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