Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp.
45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930)

  • 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 Scnes ˆ 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 infringement.