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There’s nothing new under the…bed?

There’s nothing new under the…bed?
Monday 20th November 2017

It’s that time of year when John Lewis’ annual Christmas Advert is released to an eagerly awaiting British public.  The retailer’s latest effort, which premiered on 10th November, features the story of a large, furry, blue monster named “Moz” who forges an unlikely friendship with the little boy under whose bed he lives (and who is kept awake by Moz’s snoring).  Despite again proving popular with the general public, the seemingly harmless tale featured in the advert has nonetheless generated controversy, with the renowned author and illustrator Chris Riddell recently suggesting that John Lewis have in fact “helped themselves” to his intellectual property


Mr Riddell draws a comparison between the advert and his earlier work, ‘Mr Underbed’.  ‘Mr Underbed’ is the animated story of a large, furry, blue monster (called “Mr Underbed”) who lives under the bed of a little boy (who is also disturbed by the monster’s snoring).  In a similar fashion to the John Lewis advert, in Riddell’s work it also transpires that the monster is unthreatening, and goes on to form a friendship with the protagonist.


However, simply showing a similarity between two works (however close) does not necessarily equate to a successful action for copyright infringement.  Crucially, copyright protects the expression of an idea (e.g. Mr Riddell’s works themselves) and not the idea behind it (i.e. a monster under a bed). Further copyright infringement requires there to be copying. Coincidental similarity is not an infringement of copyright.


By way of another example, in 2015 it was alleged by the filmmaker Kelly Wilson that a trailer released by Disney (advertising the upcoming release of “Frozen 2”) was a close copy of her short film ‘The Snowman’, which had been released two years earlier.  In this case, the two works were strikingly similar, each featuring a snowman who loses his ‘nose’ (a carrot) on a frozen pond, and are then required to ‘race’ in humorous fashion against another animal to recover the carrot.  In that case the judge could not overlook the similarities (which one may argue are far closer and more numerous than those between the John Lewis advert and ‘Mr Underbed’) and twice refused to have the case dismissed. However, the parties were able to settle the dispute before the courts were required to rule upon it.


Although in the case of the John Lewis advert and Mr Riddell’s work it is not controversial to suggest that there are similarities between general concepts of the stories, and also the respective appearances of Moz and Mr Underbed (both of whom are large blue and furry, and have bulbous noses and two visible fangs), it is quite another thing to suggest that John Lewis’ later work is actually a ‘copy’ of Riddell’s earlier work.  Indeed, and as John Lewis have pointed out, the story of a monster living under a child’s bed is a classic format for children’s stories which was in existence long before Mr Underbed was released in 1986.  This tale as old as time, finds similar monsters including muppets such as Herry Monster (dating back to 1970) and more recently James P Sullivan from Monsters, Inc.


When it comes to stories of children confronting their fears of monsters at bedtime, can there really be anything new under the bed?