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Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation

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Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff, author of the play, “Abie’s Irish Rose,†sued defendant, producer of the motion picture, “The Cohens and The Kellys,†which Plaintiff claims was taken from his play.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Two plays may be similar enough in plot for a finding of infringement.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

As we have said, it is of course essential to any protection of literary property that the right cannot be limited literally to the text, else a plagiarist would escape by immaterial variations.

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Facts. Plaintiff is the author of a play, “Abie’s Irish Rose.†Defendant produced a motion picture, “The Cohens and The Kells,†which the plaintiff claims was taken from it. Both plays portray stories of a Jewish and an Irish-Catholic family in which the children fall in love and are married, their parents are outraged, a grandchild is born, and there is a reconciliation that follows.

Issue. May two plays may be similar enough in plot for a finding of infringement?

Held. (Hand, J.) Yes. Two plays may be similar enough in plot for a finding of infringement. It appears in this case that the defendant took no more of the plaintiff’s work, assuming he took anything at all, than the law allowed. Both stories were very different, the only similarity being an argument between an Irish father and a Jewish father, the marriage of their children, the birth of grandchildren, and a reconciliation. The plaintiff’s copyright did not cover all that might be drawn from her play; its content went to some extent into the public domain. The theme was basically an idea and the characters were mainly stock figures, which have been used for many decades. Affirmed.

Discussion.This case involves the question of to what extent ideas may be subject to copyright protection. As a general rule, the “idea/expression dichotomy†holds that ideas are never copyrightable, though the expression of those ideas may be subject to copyright protection. While a plot is more of an idea, the court recognizes that in some cases the play may nonetheless be copyrightable, though not in this case.

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