The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v. Spielberg, USDC S.D. New York, September 21, 2010

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  • Court grants the producers of the motion picture Disturbia summary judgment in a copyright infringement action brought by the owner of the copyright to Rear Window, the short story made into an Alfred Hitchcock film, finding that the common elements between the two works are not protectible

The plaintiff, the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, owns the copyright in Rear Window, a short story written by Cornell Woolrich. Rear Window is a first person tale about an incapacitated man who discovers his neighbor’s murder from his second floor bedroom. The story was later made into a movie of the same title, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The defendants are producers and distributors of the motion picture Disturbia, including Steven Spielberg, DW Studios, LLC, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Viacom, Inc., NBC Universal, Inc., Universal Pictures Company, Inc., Universal City Studios, LLP, and United International Pictures, B.V. Disturbia revolves around a troubled teenager who catches a serial killer while under house arrest.

In Rear Window, the protagonist, Hal Jeffries, is incapacitated and observes his neighbors from the bedroom window of his second floor New York apartment. Among other things, Jeffries observes a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald. After the sickly Mrs. Thorwald disappears, Jeffries suspects Mr. Thorwald of murdering his wife. In aid of his investigation, Jeffries enlists his friend Detective Boyne and his servant Sam. Using various clues, Jeffries deduces that Mr. Thorwald killed his wife and hid the body within a concrete floor. Jeffries calls Mr. Thorwald pretending to be a blackmailer, but Thorwald discovers Jeffries. In their final confrontation, Mr. Thorwald attempts to kill Jeffries, but Detective Boyne shoots Thorwald first and the killer falls to his death. The characters of Rear Window are only minimally developed, and these events span only four days.

In Disturbia, Kale Brecht is a depressed teenager coping with the death of his father in suburban California. He is sentenced to house arrest for three months for assaulting a teacher and watches his neighbors from his home to stave off boredom. Brecht deduces that his neighbor Robert Turner may be the suspect in a string of murders, and he investigates. His investigation is aided by his friend Ronnie and love interest Ashley, and occasionally takes him outside of his house, despite his monitoring ankle bracelet. Brecht learns that Turner is indeed the killer, but after an initial confrontation, Turner captures Brecht and discloses a plan to murder Brecht and his mother. Brecht escapes with the help of Ashley and is later able to confront and kill Turner with the help of his mother.

Plaintiff sued the producers and distributors of Disturbia for copyright infringement and contributory copyright infringement, claiming that Disturbia infringed upon the plaintiff’s copyright in Rear Window. The district court granted defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims, finding that the two works are not “substantially similar.” Although the court noted that the issue of substantial similarity is often left for the jury, the similarities between the works only concerned non-copyrightable elements, and no reasonable jury could find that the works are substantially similar.

First, the court found the broad voyeur-suspicion-peril-vindication plot idea in both works is not protectible. “Similarity at this level of generality is not probative of the question of infringement.”

Second, the court found that the broad character elements that appear in both Rear Window and Disturbia are not copyrightable. Although the protagonists Brecht and Jeffries are both confined, single men, the Brecht character is far more developed than Jeffries. Brecht is a troubled teenager confined due to his trouble with police, whereas Jeffries is a man of unknown age whose best friend is a police officer. Turner and Thorwald are also dissimilar antagonists, in that Thorwald is a married man who kills his wife and Turner is an unattached serial killer. Finally, the supporting characters Ronnie and Ashley do not share any similarities with the undeveloped character Sam. The court found that any similarities between the characters are too general to be copyrightable.

Third, the court found that the settings in Disturbia and Rear Window are not substantially similar. Whereas Rear Window is set in New York City, Disturbia is set in suburban California. Moreover, Brecht is not confined solely to his room, as is Jeffries, and he frequently moves throughout and leaves his house.

Finally, the court found that the concept and feel of the two works are different. Disturbia has several subplots that unfold over the course of a year. The story incorporates humor and teen romance. By contrast, Rear Window contains only a single plot, and the events occur within four days. Rear Window’s mood is also more static and tense than Disturbia. Because any similarities between the works occur only at a high level of generality, the court held that the similarities are not protectible, and no reasonable jury could find the works to be substantially similar. Accordingly, the court granted defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment on plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims.