Judge Recognizes Separation Of Idea & Expression; Rules That Disturbia Didn't Infringe On Rear Window

from the nice-to-see dept

We've complained in the past that the so-called "idea/expression dichotomy" that's supposed to protect copyright law from violating the First Amendment seems to be getting so blurry as to barely exist in some arenas. Thankfully, it seems that some courts still understand this. A district court has rejected a copyright claim against Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks by the trust that owns the rights to the Cornell Woolrich story, Rear Window, which they claim Spielberg infringed with the movie Disturbia.

There's no doubt that there are some similarities between Disturbia and Rear Window (which was also, famously, made into a Hitchcock film in the 50s... with a license). It seems like pretty much every review of Disturbia pointed that out. But, there's a difference between being similar and being a copy. Even if it's based on the same idea, that doesn't mean it's copying any of the protectable expression from the original. And, that's what the judge found in this case:
"The main plots are similar only at a high, unprotectible level of generality," New York District Court judge Laura Taylor Swan wrote in her ruling that dismissed the complaint.

"Where 'Disturbia' is rife with sub-plots, the short story has none. The setting and mood of the short story are static and tense, whereas the setting and mood of 'Disturbia' are more dynamic and peppered with humor and teen romance," the judge added.
While this is appears to be a good ruling that understands these issues, it's still a bit troubling that this whole setup often turns judges into critics, concerning the level of similarities. Last year, of course, in a similar case, a court banned the publication of a book that was an unofficial sequel to Catcher in the Rye. It seems clear that such a situation also may have used similar ideas and plot points -- but did not copy the specific expression. Unfortunately, the judge-as-critic in that case decided otherwise, leading the US court system to ban a book (something that's not supposed to happen).


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  1.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 5:04pm

    SSDD

    Some hollywood producer from the 50's wrote a book that described the 60-80 story lines available. You change the names, you change the time, you change the location, you insert dialog. There are no original story lines and if movies are similar its because there are a limited number of story lines.

     

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  2.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 5:18pm

    Re: SSDD

    60-80? There's a bunch of claims that the real number is more like seven to twelve, depending upon how you abstract them.

    So yes, everything is derivative, which is why adding that to copyright was just crazy.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 5:38pm

    Epistemologically, the notion that an idea and an expression of an idea can be separated is on pretty unstable ground -- the distinction is largely legal make-believe, albeit a venerable one (Baker v. Selden, 1879).

     

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  4.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 5:47pm

    Re: Re: SSDD

    "the real number is more like seven to twelve"

    I think we had this discussion before. I agree the number is much lower. If you minimalize. There are shades of gray that need to be accounted for which is why I have brought up the 60-80 story lines book several times.

    "So yes, everything is derivative, which is why adding that to copyright was just crazy."

    Agreed.

     

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  5.  
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    Darren Tomlyn, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 6:24pm

    Re: Idea vs expression

    The best way to think of, (and therefore recognise), the difference between an idea and its expression is language itself, (which is related to a paper I'm currently working on):

    The difference between an idea and its expression, is similar to the difference between what a word represents, and how it, (the word and what it represents), is used and applied within the language. If, for instance, you could copyright what a word actually represents, then the number of words you could use to represent that thing, would be severely limited, (and if you also copyright the use and application of it on top of that...), whereas if you only copyright how a specific word is used in a very specific way, then it can not only be used in other ways, but also allow for different words to represent the same thing, and maybe explore different ways of doing so.

    Understood?

    (The paper I'm working on is about a group of words where what they represent isn't fully recognised or understood, and so the line between what the words represent, and how they are used/applied is not consistent - (and is causing problems, which seem to be spreading :-/ )).

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 7:50pm

    False Assertion Of Copyright

    The case was a false assertion of copyright. Isn't there supposed to be some penalty for doing that sort of thing? If the plaintiffs are allowed to get away with it, cue the whining about copyright law being inadequate.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 10:29pm

    Re: False Assertion Of Copyright

    No, no, no, copyright is supposed to stimulate lawsuits by encouraging people to become plaintiffs. Encouraging people to become plaintiffs helps encourage them to hire lawyers which keeps lawyers employed, it also encourages defendants to hire lawyers which keeps more lawyers employed, it makes people pay court fees and makes the system hire more judges which keeps judges employed and so everyone has jobs.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 10:31pm

    Re: Re: False Assertion Of Copyright

    Now if plaintiffs had to pay more penalties for initiating frivolous lawsuits then that would discourage them from becoming plaintiffs.

     

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  9.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:33am

    Re: Re: Idea vs expression

    "The difference between an idea and its expression, is similar to the difference between what a word represents, and how it, (the word and what it represents), is used and applied within the language. If, for instance, you could copyright what a word actually represents, then the number of words you could use to represent that thing, would be severely limited, (and if you also copyright the use and application of it on top of that...), whereas if you only copyright how a specific word is used in a very specific way, then it can not only be used in other ways, but also allow for different words to represent the same thing, and maybe explore different ways of doing so."

    In your example, a word can be substituted for any other assortment of letters. In literature, you cannot pick any other assortment of words and equally express the same idea. In cases where you can then you are still limited in the number of expressions available. The issue is not whether a distinction can be made, but whether one is practical or useful.

    If you also apply the theory of copyright maximilists that the term is naturally unlimited then you are destined to exhaust all possible expressions and end up with melancholy elephants.

     

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  10.  
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    art guerrilla, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:29am

    me not unnerstan'...

    i'm not sure i understand how a derivative work -like the catcher in the rye 'sequel'- can be 'banned'...
    IF that is the case, then why -i don't know any technical details as far as whether rights were sought- was a piece of crap like 'wicked' allowed to stand ? ? ?
    besides being a trite, typical, broadway nothingburger with a stupid story with plot holes every 5 minutes, it was a total ripoff of the wizard of oz...
    WHY the useless, unoriginal author couldn't have simply told HIS 'story' (lame as it was), instead of piggybacking on the wizard of oz, is beyond me...
    NO DOUBT, it used the wizard of oz's popularity to put a shine on his own turd...
    i hate this shit: i realize there are only so many plots, but dog damn, can't they at least pretend to be original in their presentations ? ? ?
    seems like half the movies and shit we see are remakes, part II, III, etc...
    (as it is, 90% of the 'new', 'original' movies i see advertised on the tee vee, are the SAME story about a secret agent/assassin who is wronged and goes on a righteous killing spree... oddly enough, as many of these assassin jobs as there seem to be, i never see any advertised on craigslist...)
    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

     

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  11.  
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    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 8:31am

    Re: Re: Re: SSDD

    I think we have done this before. Obviously, I need a copy of that book (it still seems like an excessive number to me.)

     

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  12.  
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    Darren Tomlyn, Sep 24th, 2010 @ 7:20pm

    Re: Re: Re: Idea vs expression

    My example was purely hypothetical, (not an example of how it actually works - (the word could is important)). But in my scenario there's nothing to stop people from inventing their own words to mean whatever they want. If someone could copyright the underlying concepts words can represent then this wouldn't be possible. Such is the nature of the difference.

    Just because it doesn't work this way, doesn't mean it can't ;)

    The latter is only really a problem if you allow people to protect not just whole and complete expressions, but also parts thereof...

    The whole issue here is one of creativity - doing something that someone or something else hasn't done before - the ONLY question that should be necessary to answer, is a purely subjective one that humanity as a whole needs to answer for itself - just how much creativity, how much difference is necessary - or just how much difference does it recognise as being enough?

    This is the one area where judges and individuals cannot answer by themselves, and is why we're having problems - especially when they let the entertainment industry answer it for them - it's not really their problem to solve, but humanity - (or in this case the citizens of whichever country - (I'm in the UK).

     

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