Thursday, October 07, 2010


The U.S. Southern District Court in New York has found that director Steven Spielberg's film "Disturbia" does not infringe the copyright in the short story "Rear Window," which was the basis for the Alfred Hitchcock movie with the same title. U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain found there was no substantial similarity between "Rear Window" and "Disturbia."

Spielberg and the other defendants produced and distributed the motion picture Disturbia; in 2007. For a plaintiff to prevail in a copyright infringement case, two elements must be proved: (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. The defendants conceded access and actual copying. Thus, the only questions for resolution were whether Defendants unlawfully appropriated copyrightable elements from Plaintiff's Short Story, and, if there is no such appropriation, whether Defendants are entitled to judgment dismissing Plaintiff's copyright infringement claims as a matter of law. To prove unlawful appropriation of protectible elements, a plaintiff must show that there is substantial similarity between protectible elements in the two disputed works.

The short story Rear Window spans four days and depicts, through first-person narrative, protagonist Hal Jeffries' observations of his neighbors' activities which eventually lead him to discover and solve a crime through deductive logic. It is set in New York City.
At the opening of the Short Story, the reader learns that Jeffries is incapacitated such that he can only move from his bed to a chair near the window of his second floor bedroom.

The events depicted in Disturbia span more than a year. The story's chief protagonist is Kale Brecht, a troubled teenager who, sentenced to house arrest, spies on neighbors to stave off boredom and, after learning of the disappearance of several women in the area, discovers that his neighbor may be to blame.

The court found that “It cannot be disputed that both works tell the story of a male protagonist, confined to his home, who spies on neighbors to stave off boredom and, in so doing, discovers that one of his neighbors is a murderer. The voyeur is himself discovered by the suspected murderer, is attacked by the murderer, and is ultimately vindicated. Although it is possible to characterize the plots of both works so they appear indistinguishable, such similarity is not, standing alone, indicative of substantial similarity. The law of copyright only protects an author's particular expression of an idea, not the idea itself.”

The court concluded that the expression of the voyeur-suspicion-peril-vindication plot idea is quite different in the two works. This broad plot idea, or premise, is not a protectible element. Similarity at this level of generality is not probative of the question of infringement.

The Plaintiffs also contended that the characters were similar. The court disagreed stating that they are not substantially similar. “While Plaintiff correctly points out that both Kale and Jeffries are confined, single men, such generalized similarities are not protectible.”

The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, v. Steven Spielberg et al., No. 08 Civ. 7810 United States District Court, S.D. New York, September 21, 2010. The full decision is posted below.