Copyright mavens are familiar with Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), in which Sheldon Abend pursued the producers of the Hitchcock classic Rear Window all the way to the Supreme Court, and successfully, arguing that the re-release of the film infringed the renewal term of the copyright in Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to Be Murder. Hitchcock and Stewart had purchased the rights to the story from Woolrich. Woolrich died. Abend, his agent [I will correct myself here (11/16/10): Abend was apparently agent for the estate, not for Woolrich himself], obtained the renewal rights and sued Hitchcock and Stewart twice — once in 1974, when the film was broadcast on ABC television without Abend’s permission, and again in the late 1980s, in the case that ended up in the Supreme Court, after MCA re-released the movie in theatrical form, on cable television, and on videocassette.
Those lawsuits resulted in a series of settlements between Abend and MCA over continuing rights to use of the story in the film.
In 2007, Rear Window was re-made — sort of — as Disturbia, a marketing vehicle for Shia LaBeouf that turned the Jimmy Stewart character into a home-bound teenager with a thing for his neighbor. Sheldon Abend turned up shortly afterward (in fact, it was the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, which succeeded to Abend’s interest in the short story). Earlier this Fall, a federal district judge in New York concluded that Disturbia did not infringe the copyright in It Had to Be Murder. The two works are not substantially similar at the level of protected expression.
That order turns out to be only a temporary setback for the plaintiff. The Abend Trust has launched yet another round of litigation, this time filing a breach of contract suit in Superior Court in Los Angeles, claiming that the production and/or marketing of Disturbia breaches one or more of the settlement agreements. I have seen neither the settlement agreements nor the new complaint. But the publicity surrounding the new suit certainly has a “second bite at the apple” air to it.
Has any film in history been the subject and object of more copyright infringement litigation than Rear Window?