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Nearly seventeen months after the release of Steven Spielberg’s Disturbia, the estate of Sheldon Abend filed a complaint claiming that the film infringed upon Abend’s exclusive rights to a short story by Cornell Woolrich. The film rights to the story, called “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint,” or alternatively, “It Had to be Murder,” were purchased in 1953 by actor and director James Stewart. Woolrich’s story was the basis for the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, in which Stewart starred as a wheelchair-bound photographer who, while watching the neighborhood goings-on from his apartment window, begins to suspect his neighbor of murder.
Sheldon Abend bought the rights to Woolrich’s story in 1971 and produced a made-for-TV version of Rear Window. Following the Supreme Court decision in Stewart v. Abend, which said that the re-release and continued distribution of Hitchcock’s film infringed upon Abend’s right to the short story and did not constitute fair use, a license agreement in 1991 granted Abend the exclusive rights to Woolrich’s story.
The complaint filed by the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York named Spielberg, Viacom, Dreamworks, Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures as defendants. The Trust cites the similarities between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Spielberg’s Disturbia, pointed out by many critics at the time of the latter film’s release, as evidence supporting their lawsuit for breach of contract and copyright infringement. However, given the regularity with which common ideas are transformed into just as common movies, will the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust be able to establish that Disturbia‘s plot captures the “heart” of Woolrich’s short story? It seems likely that Disturbia will be deemed by the court to have portrayed no more than an idea in the public domain, and unlikely that Spielberg and the other defendants will be found guilty of stealing Woolrich’s “expression” of that idea.
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