Nichols wrote a play about a
Jewish family living in New York. Universal made a movie about a Jewish
family living in New York. Nichols sued for copyright infringement.
Nichols argued that the
Universal work was substantially similar to his work.
Universal argued that they
came up with their movie by themselves (aka independent creation), and that it was different enough from
Nichol's play to be outside the scope of Nichols' copyright.
The Trial Court found for
Universal. Nichols appealed.
The Appellate Court affirmed.
The Appellate Court noted
that a work could be a copy of an earlier work even if it didn't copy the
literal text, but the two works needed to be substantially similar.
There is no bright-line
rule for how similar a work has to be to be a copyright violation.
The Court found that
although the two plays shared a number of the same themes and the general
plot, the similarities tended to be general things, universal concepts,
and stereotypical characters. There was nothing unique to Nichols' play
that was found in Universal's movie.
Remember, you can copyright
an expression, but not an idea. So you can't copyright something general
like "father who disapproves of daughter's fiance." That's
just an idea, not an expression.
The ScŹnes ą Faire Doctrine
says that copyright does not extent to the incidents, character, or
settings that are as a practical matter indispensable or at least standard
in the treatment of a given topic. So for example, all police shows are
going to have the same stereotypical characters, but those similar
characters are no copyright violations.
Basically, this case said that
as long as a defendant only takes the uncopyrightable elements of a
plaintiff's work, the two works will not be substantially similar enough to constitute copyright