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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Filed Under: copyright, disturbia, expression, idea, rear window, steven spielberg
Companies: dreamworks


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  1. identicon
    Darren Tomlyn, 24 Sep 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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