Judge sides with Spielberg/DreamWorks; 'Disturbia' not too similar to 'Rear Window'

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Judge sides with Spielberg/DreamWorks; 'Disturbia' not too similar to 'Rear Window'

Wed Sep 22, 2010 @ 09:47AM PST

By Eriq Gardner

A message to all those who are thinking about suing a Hollywood studio for ripping off an idea: Unless the studio agreed to hear your pitch, or unless you've got concrete evidence that your copyrighted material was copied almost verbatim, don't waste your time.

That's the message from a New York District Court's decision to dismiss on summary judgment a lawsuit against makers of the 2007 film "Disturbia," which the plaintiffs argued was modeled after Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," itself derivative of a short story owned by the plaintiff.

Practically every movie critic in America noted the similarity between "Disturbia" and "Rear Window," and even some cast members admitted it was an "homage." When the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust first sued DreamWorks, producer Steven Spielberg and others in September 2008, commentators called the action the "most obvious lawsuit ever" and a "total 'duh.' "

Guess what? In one of the best illustrations of why idea theft cases are almost impossible to win, a court doesn't see the two films as substantially similar. Let's explore.

In "Disturbia," Shia LaBeouf is sentenced by a judge to spend 30 days in his suburban house with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors, including one with a possible murderous streak. Like Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," LaBeouf has a pair of binoculars and a possible love interest that makes house calls.

What makes the film not a pure copy of the original are some changes we'd deem to be cosmetic. The action isn't set in New York but rather a suburb. The protagonist isn't a middle-aged man with an injury, but rather a teenager under house arrest. 

New York District Judge Laura Swain details a full litany of minor differences in the films from the look of the confined habitat to the characteristics of the killer.

All these differences add up, Judge Swain says.

"The main plots are similar only at a high, unprotectable level of generality," the judge writes. "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."

She concludes that "no reasonable trier of fact could find the works substantially similar within the meaning of copyright law." 

This case shows just how much latitude Hollywood studios have to recycle ideas. The two films and the judge's decision should be required viewing to anybody thinking about pressing one of these cases.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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