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OCT
29
4 YEARS

EXCLUSIVE: Decades-Old Legal Battle Over 'Rear Window' Is Back On

Shia Labeouf
Courtesy of Dreamworks

The legal fight over whether the 2007 film Disturbia is a rip-off of an Alfred Hitchcock classic is far from being in the, um, rear window.

Despite nearly three decades of litigation over rights to the famous Rear Window story, and a decision last month that seemed to put an end to the matter, Universal Pictures is once against being sued.

The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust filed a new lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court yesterday claiming that Universal and its affiliates breached a settlement agreement by distributing and advertising Disturbia, which stars Shia LaBeouf as a teenager under home confinement who spies on his neighbors and believes one to be a killer.

The complaint is fascinating but requires some background first.

Sheldon Abend was an esteemed literary agent who represented the estates of authors including George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, David O. Selznick and Cornell Woolrich, author of a short story that served as the basis for the 1954 classic Hitchcock film, Rear Window.

In the 1980s, after Hitchcock's original was shown on television, Abend took on MCA, Hitchcock and star Jimmy Stewart in court, claiming that the defendants not only needed rights from Paramount to show the film, but also had to secure rights to the underlying story that served as the basis for the film. The case culminated in a landmark 1990 Supreme Court decision that established the so-called "Abend Rule," which deals with the continued distribution of a derivative work during the copyright renewal period of the underlying work.

The big case also produced licensing and settlement agreements in 1991 and 1992 between the parties. The pact gave MCA, a predecessor to Universal, the right to distribute the classic film and have limited rights to exploit the film in advertising and theme park endeavors, in return for a percentage of gross revenue. 

It's these settlement agreements that the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust now claims have been breached.

After Disturbia came out, most critics noted the similarity between it and the Hitchcock film, and producers and actors did little to discourage notions that it was a modern version of the story.

In 2008, the Abend Trust sued Universal, Paramount, Dreamworks and producer Steven Spielberg for infringing the copyright of the Woolrich story. Last month, a federal judge in New York dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that "no reasonable trier of fact could find the works substantially similar within the meaning of copyright law." 

Based on the lawsuit filed yesterday, however, the Abend Trust hasn't given up.   In a 68-page complaint, the plaintiff says that Universal breached its covenant by not removing elements of the Rear Window story from Disturbia and also by making a strategic plan to market the new film by incorporating its similarity with the Rear Window story.   The lawsuit also alleges that the parties had several discussions before the release of Disturbia and that Universal ignored legal warnings by releasing the film.   Is the latest breach-of-contract claim a dressed-up rehash of an unsuccessful copyright infringement lawsuit? A judge will soon make that determination.   The new lawsuit has some differences from the 2008 claim. Spielberg is no longer a defendant. Instead, Hitchcock's estate is a defendant thanks to being party to the 1991-2 agreement that serves as the basis for this fight. Most importantly, the case won't be fought in a federal courtroom in New York. Rather, the LA Superior Court will hear the plaintiff's state-based claims of breach of contract, unfair competition, accounting, and inducement of breach of contract, and determine whether Abend deserves unspecified compensatory, exemplary, and punitive damages.