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, 22 Sep 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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