Alfred Hitchcock’s motion picture Rear Window and Cornell Woolrich’s short story of the same name are considered touchstone works of cinema and literature. However, the property – and its complicated history – may be developing a new reputation as a virtual primer for copyright law.
Copyright practitioners will no doubt be familiar with Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), in which the holder of the renewal copyright in the “Rear Window” short story brought an infringement action against the distributors of Hitchcock’s motion picture. In a seminal decision, the Supreme Court addressed the rights of successor owners of a copyright work during a copyright’s renewal term vis-à-vis the rights of owners in derivative works who were assigned those rights during the initial copyright term. The Court held that continued exploitation of a derivative work during the renewal term of the pre-existing work — where no renewal right in the derivative work has been assigned — infringes the rights of successor owners of the pre-existing work (even where, as was the case in Stewart, the author of the pre-existing work had promised to assign the rights in the renewal term to the derivative work’s owner, but died before doing so).
Recently, Rear Window made waves once again in the annals of copyright law, albeit this time in the context of substantial similarity. In The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v. Steven Spielberg, No. 08 Civ. 7810 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2010), the plaintiff, the current copyright owner of Woolrich’s short story, sued the producers of the hit film Disturbia for infringement. The defendants conceded actual copying. On the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court addressed whether the elements that the defendants had copied were protectable under the Copyright Act.
It is well settled that the law of copyright only protects an author’s expression of an idea, not the ideaitself. 17 U.S.C. § 102(b). However, the line between mere idea and protectable expression is not always clear. See, e.g., Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. v. MCA, Inc., 715 F.2d 1327 (9th Cir. 1983) (genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether only idea of Star Wars or expression of that idea was copied by Battlestar: Galactica); Leigh v. Warner Bros, Inc., 212 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir. 2000) (general issues of material fact existed as to whether protected elements of author’s photograph of Savannah’s “Bird Girl” sculpture were infringed by film studio’s promotional images featuring replica of sculpture). Because this inquiry is highly factual, courts have traditionally been hesitant to grant summary judgment on copyright infringement claims.
On the surface, Disturbia appears to have much in common with Woolrich’s short story (which was somewhat faithfully adapted, although expanded on, in the Hitchcock film): both works feature a male protagonist with a similar name (Hal in “Rear Window” vs. Kale in Disturbia), who, confined to his home and trying to stave off boredom, uses binoculars to spy on neighbors from his bedroom window. He begins to suspect — and ultimately confirms — that one of his neighbors (Thorwald in “Rear Window,” Turner in Disturbia) is a murderer. In both works, the murdered victims are women. Both Hal and Kale are joined in their adventures by “assistant” characters. Finally, both works end in a climatic fight between protagonist and murderer, resulting in the murderer falling to his death.
So, did Disturbia rip off “Rear Window”?
According to the court, no. While the court noted that the works were similar at a general level of abstraction, it concluded, after extensive comparison, that there was no infringement, due to the differences in how the two works expressed their “voyeur-suspicion-peril-vindication” plotlines. Among other things:
- Hal of “Rear Window” is “of indeterminate age” and has no pastimes or legal problems; Disturbia’s Kale is a troubled teen with a variety of pastimes and a history of run-ins with the law;
- Thorwald (“Rear Window”) is a husband who murders his wife, while Turner (Disturbia) is a single man and serial killer;
- “Rear Window” is set in an apartment in New York City, whereas Disturbia is set in a California suburb;
- “Rear Window” is confined to a single bedroom;Disturbia relies on a variety settings;
- “Rear Window” spans four days, while Disturbia spans more than a year;
- “Rear Window” has no subplots; Disturbia has many; and
- The mood of “Rear Window” is “static and tense,” while Disturbia incorporates humor and teen romance.
These differences – the court held – rendered “the total look and feel of the works so distinct that no reasonable trier of fact could find the works substantially similar.” The similarities in plotlines and basic character types “derive[d] entirely from unprotectible [sic] elements.”
Sheldon Abend v. Spielberg provides useful insight into the analytic approach of courts in literary infringement cases, particularly in the Second Circuit. For plaintiffs, proving infringement of protectable expression is a formidable task. The more specific and detailed the showing of similarities–in plot points, subplots, characters, and mood — the greater the chance a plaintiff has in surviving summary judgment. Although not explicitly addressed by the New York district court, the fact that the two works were in different media (e.g., literary short story (“Rear Window”) vs. motion picture (Disturbia)) seemed to pose an additional hurdle for the plaintiff. Even where most viewers would agree that the works resemble each other, it may be difficult to prevail against a defendant who freely borrows a plotline, but makes a number of changes in character, setting, and tone.
The case can be read here.
 Viewers of the film version of Rear Window will recall its romance and humor. However, the plaintiff’s claim was premised solely upon the “Rear Window” short story, not the Alfred Hitchcock film; the humor and romance elements were not part of the short story.