Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v Spielberg

Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v Spielberg
- F. Supp. 2d -, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99080 (S.D.N.Y. September 21, 2010)
Lexis: 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99080

Facts: Plaintiff holds the copyright to the short story Rear Window written in 1942 by Cornell Woolrich. A predecessor to one of the Defendants obtained the motion picture rights to the story in 1953; the film Rear Window was released in 1954 and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rear Window is a story about a man confined to his room due to an injury who observes his neighbors over the course of a few days and eventually solves a murder. Beginning in April of 2007, Defendants produced and distributed the motion picture Disturbia. Disturbia is about a teenage boy who is under house arrest and begins observing his neighbors to reduce his boredom but eventually becomes involved in exposing and confronting the serial killer next door.

Procedural Posture: Plaintiff brought an action asserting copyright infringement, contributory infringement, and vicarious infringement pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §101 et. seq. as well as common law breach of contract claims against Defendants. Plaintiff’s claims based on similarity to the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window were dismissed by joint stipulation. Defendants moved the court for summary judgment on the copyright infringement claims.

Holding: Defendants' motion for preliminary summary judgment is granted and Plaintiff's claims of copyright infringement, vicarious infringement, and contributory infringement are dismissed because the works are only similar at very general levels of abstraction.

Likely Future Importance or Unanswered Questions: This case illustrates that although works can appear to be “ripping off” older works, a detailed consideration of the specific elements of each work is required before a finding of substantial similarity can be made. Because the claims based on the similarity of Disturbia to the movie-version of Rear Window were dismissed by stipulation, the court did not consider the potentially complicated question of whether a defendant whose predecessor holds the right to make a derivative work infringes the original copyright by making a third work that is substantially similar to the derivative work.

Critical analysis: The court began by laying out the standard for a finding of copyright infringement: (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. For disposition of the instant motion, the court focused on the second element, noting that to prove copying through indirect evidence, the plaintiff must show (1) the defendant’s access to the allegedly infringed work, (2) actual copying, and (3) unlawful appropriation of copyrightable materials. Because Defendants admitted actual copying for the purposes of their motion, the court focused on the third prong, unlawful appropriation, and stated that a plaintiff must show that there is substantial similarity between protectable elements in the two disputed works.

According to the court, the proper inquire for deciding substantial similarity is “whether an ordinary observer, unless he set out to detect the disparities, would be disposed to overlook them, and regard the aesthetic appeal as the same.” (alteration in original, citation omitted). However, a court must consider both similarities and dissimilarities because if the dissimilarities outweigh the similarities and the similar elements are not important to the plaintiff’s work, a finding of no infringement is appropriate.

The court then went through an extensive comparison of the works. First the court laid out summary overviews of each work (the short story Rear Window and the movie Disturbia). The court then specifically compared various elements of the works: plot, characters, setting, and “total concept and feel.” As to plot, the court noted that similarity at that level of generality is not probative and the “voyeur-suspicion-peril-vindication plot idea” was expressed differently in each work. For characters, the court noted that the bar for substantial similarity is set quite high. The court found that the similarities between characters in each were too generalized to be afforded protection, specifically noting the level of development of the respective characters as well as the number of characters overall. The court easily found the settings to be dissimilar based on both the geographic locations (California in Disturbia and New York in Rear Window) and the scope of the settings (one room in Rear Window but multiple houses, yards, a courthouse, a forest, etc. in Disturbia). Finally, the court found that the “total concept and feel” of the works were not substantially similar noting the more dynamic pace of Disturbia which is also peppered with humor and teen romance unlike Rear Window.

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