ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fighting over Buck Rogers

Buck Rogers

(Source: Wikipedia)

There's an interesting case out of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, The Dille Family Trust v. The Nowlan Family Trust, Civil Action No. 15-6231, dealing with issues around the trademark BUCK ROGERS. But it also has a breach of contract angle that requires us to learn the history of Buck Rogers. So let's dive in!

Philip Nowlan wrote a story called Armageddon 2419 A.D. that appeared in August 1928, starring a character named Anthony Rogers. In 1929, Nowlan wrote a sequel to the story, also starring Rogers. Nowlan, identified as the "creator of . . . 'Buck' Rogers," entered into a contract in 1929 with a newspaper service owned by John F. Dille to syndicate the comic strip "Buck Rogers." This contractual relationship seemed to survive through the 1930s, until Nowlan died in 1940. Nowlan's widow, Theresa Nowlan, then sued the newspaper service alleging underpayment under the contracts. The parties settled in 1942, which is where the breach of contract claim in the current case arises from. The agreement provided that Theresa Nowlan and her "heirs, executors, or administrators" released all claims against the newspaper service related to Buck Rogers and also conveyed all intellectual property interest in Buck Rogers to Dille. 

Neither the Dille Family Trust nor the Nowlan Family Trust were parties to this settlement agreement. They were not even in existence until decades after it was signed. However, the Dille Family Trust asserted that it is the successor in interest to John Dille and that the Nowlan Family Trust is the successor in interest to Theresa Nowlan. Therefore, it contends that it can sue the Nowlan Family Trust for breach of the 1942 settlement agreement. 

The court, however, disagreed. While there was no dispute that the trustee and beneficiaries of the Nowlan Family Trust were descendants of Theresa Nowlan, that was not enough to establish that the Nowlan Family Trust was an "heir, executor, or administrator" or otherwise a successor in interest to Nowlan's obligations under the 1942 settlement agreement. The Dille Family Trust did not show any sort of transfer of the agreement to the Nowlan Family Trust, nor did it introduce any other document (such as Theresa Nowlan's will) that might have indicated that the rights and obligations of the 1942 settlement agreement passed to the descendants in question. Therefore, the Dille Family Trust could not maintain a breach of contract action against the Nowlan Family Trust based on the 1942 settlement agreement. 

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