It looks as though Steven Spielberg has succeeded where Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart failed. In 1990, the United States Supreme Court held that the classic 1954 film Rear Window infringed the copyright of Sheldon Abend, a literary agent who purchased the renewal rights to It Had to be Murder, the short story on which Rear Window was based. The landmark decision, Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), articulated what is now known as the Abend Rule, which applies to older works where there was an original and renewal term of copyright protection. Under that rule, the grant of the right to create a derivative work did not extend into the renewal term of copyright if the grantor died before the renewal term began.
Some twenty years later, Hollywood geared up for a sequel. The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust (Sheldon having died in 2003) sued Spielberg and other producers of the film Disturbia for copyright infringement of the same short story. The 2007 hit film stars Shia LeBeouf (Hollywood’s go-to actor for the role of “unwitting-youth-in-peril”) as a troubled teenager who relieves the tedium of house arrest by spying on his neighbors and uncovers a serial killer, played by the incomparable David Morse (Hollywood’s go-to actor for the role of “creepy-guy-who-may-or-may-not-be-evil”). Although, comparisons between Disturbia and Rear Window abounded at the time, few reviewers mentioned the original short story.
Disturbia’s producers recently won summary judgment in The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust v. Spielberg, No. 08 Civ. 7810 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 21, 2010). The court held that, despite similarities between the works, Disturbia did not infringe It Had to be Murder, because none of the short story’s “protectible elements” were appropriated.
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