Spike Jonze Being Sued For 'Her' Over Generic Plot Similarities

from the idea-and-expression dept

The concept of the idea/expression dichotomy in copyright law has essentially served as a long-running joke. The concept is that you can't copyright a general idea or concept, only the specific expression an author develops. For instance, you might have the idea to write a story about a group of four friends traveling on a journey together, bonding and accomplishing tasks. That idea cannot be copyrighted, but the somewhat like expressions known as The Wizard of Oz and Stand By Me can. They're similar in only the most general ways, but both can coexist without the need of lawyers and suits. Unfortunately, we've seen example after example of this dichotomy being actively ignored in the more noble interest in making tons of money off of another person's expression. Some folks seem to think that they can own an idea.

Well, let's make room on that list of folks for Sachin Gadh and Jonathan Sender, who are suing Spike Jonze for his film Her, which they say he stole from them. Giving the story a bit of the old conspiratorial air is the fact that the writers originally pitched their screenplay, called Belv, to the same agency that represents Jonze. They were told at the time that the agency didn't accept unsolicited manuscripts (this is extremely common). So, what evidence do Gadh and Sender offer for the theft of their mind-gasms?

The legal papers stated, "In both 'Her' and 'Belv' the main character carries around the love interest in his front shirt pocket." It continued, "Both 'Her' and "Belv' examine the human psyche through interactions between the character and the computer." In addition to the two examples, the document also cited, "The main character in 'Her' is heartbroken after a failed relationship and seek solace in a computer. In 'Belv' a cell phone comes to life after a microwave mishap and becomes a witty wing man for dating."
Let's take these in order. First, the example of where a character carries the device that contains the digital being that is his love interest is silly. I mean, if you had to depict someone carrying around technology with them, how would you do it? There's, like, five places where that can happen, assuming we don't want to get gross with this. As for both films examining the human psyche by interacting with a computer, take five seconds to count up how many films you could say did the exact same thing and see what your total is. I made it to four, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, S1m0one, and The Terminator. Then I mentally added the book I wrote three years ago, Digilife, to the equation because it's both a great example of the same concept and it serves as a wonderful reminder to all of you that you can buy it in the Insider Shop.

Finally, I'm at a complete loss as to why the authors decided to include that last bit that essentially describes how these films are totally different. One involves a computer offering solace after a failed relationship, the other turns into a wingman after what I can only assume is an unfortunate microwave popcorn mishap. That's like comparing Eat, Pray, Love and Hitch. They aren't the same.

The point of all this is that some understanding must be reached that any similarities you might struggle to find between two expressions don't amount to copyright infringement. Even as some unfortunate rulings have been made in courts essentially protecting ideas like characters and settings, when you have to work this hard to liken two expressions, you don't have a case.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Mark Harrill (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 10:37am

    Short Circuit

    You forgot the best computer interaction movie: Short Circuit. Number 5 is alive!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    Dark Helmet (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 10:57am

    Re: Short Circuit

    Son of a bitch, you're absolutely correct....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    S. T. Stone, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:02pm

    What, no RoboCop on your list?

    You have disgraced yourself and this website. Turn in your badge and gun. You have twenty seconds to comply.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Zauber Paracelsus (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:07pm

    As I've said several times to people before, "Ideas are worthless. It's what you do with them that has value."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:11pm

    Hey! what the hell man! your car has headlights, 4 wheels and windows... You stole that idea from me!

    Pretty soon we are gonna have WB making only quirky love comedies; Paramount making westerns; Universal making Sci-fi etc. and then the new kids in town gets the scrap. All because they are going to be afraid to tread inside another production company's "idea".
    Piracy isn't destroying movie business... they are handling that pretty well themselves.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Jessie (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:19pm

    Just like how Saved by the Bell and Casablanca are similar because they both involve humans.

    Ok, well maybe not Screech, but the rest of them were.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Baron von Robber, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:25pm

    Perhaps they got their idea from patent trolls and crossed it over to scripts.


    "Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after. The End" (C)

    That should do it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:41pm

    It'd be nice if your second example wasn't bogus.

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20130528/09321723228/piano-instructor-claims-copyright-writing-lett ers-piano-keys.shtml#c553

    60 personal arrangements and transcriptions are a specific expression, not a general idea.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    boomslang, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 12:44pm

    Re: Short Circuit

    You're forgetting 1953 classic, The Twonky. It might be public domain now, I'm not really clear on the laws. Otherwise, the late Arch Oboler should be suing left and right from beyond the grave!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Sheogorath (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:39pm

    Oh, shit!

    Knowing how litigious Dibsney is, coupled with the fact that they own the Jim Henson Workshop, I'm probably gonna get my ass sued for stealing the final scene of 'Labyrinth' in its entirety.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    rycho (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 2:52pm

    Gross images

    Timothy, I had to get gross to come up with five places. Does that mean my imagination needs work or therapy?

    This seems to be a case of mistaken definitions. Cell phones are totally different to smart phones. A cell phone doesn't have voice-activation, search functionality, or simulated sex apps - microwaved or not.

    I'm surprised their legal claim didn't just say that Belv and Her both contain the letter E, which they clearly stole, so put a fork in it. Case closed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 3:47pm


    I assume you mean the ORIGINAL RoboCop, not this new ripoff masquerading as RoboCop.

    And how about "Johnny Mnemonic"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 4:03pm

    Re: Short Circuit

    If it's "computer interaction movies" you want, there's "Tron" and "Tron: Legacy".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    rycho (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 4:07pm

    Re: Short Circuit

    Considering the list was a result of five seconds of thought, I thought TG did well.
    You can add Moon to the list...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    rycho (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 4:19pm

    Product Placements

    A shameless plug by the author; lest all the corporate leviathans take it all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 4:31pm

    Perhaps just me, but it does seem prudent to first read the complaint before writing about its contents...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Rekrul, Feb 20th, 2014 @ 5:13pm

    The Big Bang Theory did the idea of a guy in love with his phone first.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    G Thompson (profile), Feb 20th, 2014 @ 9:10pm

    Re: Short Circuit

    For those old enough to remember the 80's (yes yes I know.. im trying so hard to forget too) there is Electric Dreams!!


    They even used Georgio Morodo's awesome *cough* song "Together in Electric Dreams" (it's in your head forever now)

    PS: Oh and Tim... you really need to work on your subliminal advertising :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 3:15am

    Examining the human psyche through interaction with a machine... right, add "I Robot" as well, yes?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    btrussell (profile), Feb 21st, 2014 @ 3:31am

    Re: Re: Short Circuit

    1953...public domain now?

    Marked as funny.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 8:29am

    Step 1: Create works in every major genre (i.e. Murder mystery)
    Step 2: When a new book/movie comes out, sue them for copying you. (Sue a new murder mystery for having murder and a mystery)
    Step 3: ???
    Step 4: Profit!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Not Applicable, Feb 21st, 2014 @ 1:14pm

    There should be a way of suing Spike Jones and everyone involved for making and distributing HER and the 'Remake' of 'Old Boy' the Death Penalty comes to mind. . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    The Wanderer (profile), Mar 5th, 2014 @ 5:50pm

    Re: Gross images

    I read the "five places" as being four pants pockets (two front, two back) and one shirt pocket. And some pants have more; I keep my cell phone in an extra pocket on the right leg of my pants.

    That's not even counting the possibilities in coat pockets and inside pockets and so on, of course. Or clipping something on to your belt (even if just a belt pouch), or "wearable computing" devices such as Google Glass, or...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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