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The legal fight over whether the 2007 film, Disturbia, is a rip-off of an Alfred Hitchcock classic is far from being in the 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 of this matter, Universal Pictures is once against being sued.
The Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust filed a new lawsuit in LA Superior Court yesterday that claims that Universal Pictures and its affiliates breached a licensing agreement and settlement 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 nature of 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 Alfred Hitchcock film, Rear Window.
In the 1980s, after Hitchcock’s original was shown on television, Abend took on MCA, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jimmy Stewart in court, claiming that the defendants not only needed rights to 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 the gross revenue.
It’s these licensing agreements that the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust now claims to 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 Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust sued Universal, Paramount, Dreamworks, and producer Stephen 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.”
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