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Disney, a company well known for its strict reign over its own intellectual property, has found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit as a Hollywood screenwriter is claiming that the company knowingly stole the idea for its recent hit Zootropolis.

Gary Goldman, a screenwriter whose credits includes Total Recall and Big Trouble in Little China, is claiming that he pitched the movie to the studio in both 2000 and 2009 but was turned down by Disney Executives, only for them to take his idea and create Zootropolis, which is known as Zootopia outside of the UK.

The lawsuit claims that Disney then took character designs, themes, lines of dialogue, and even the Zootopia name from Goldman’s first pitch to the studio.

With Disney coming out and denying the charges Luke Corcoran, Solicitor in Simpson Millar’s Commercial Law team, looks at the case and its potential implications for the global media empire.

Predatory Copyright Infringements

In the complaint from Goldman, which were filed by his own Esplanade Productions, several Disney executives are named, including Byron Howard – the director and writer of Disney’s Zootopia – who is quoted in the lawsuit documents as telling artists:

“Don’t worry if you feel like you’re copying something, because if it comes through you, it’s going to filter through you and you’re going to bring your own unique perspective to it.”

It is this, Goldman alleges, that highlights a culture of copying at Disney, with several alleged examples showing that Disney copies themes from others’ intellectual property, these examples include:

  • Kimba the White Lion inspiring the artwork and characters in The Lion King – the former’s copyright holders have never brought an infringement case and indeed Kimba’s creator expressed that he would be happy if his work inspired that of Disney
  • Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy, which features The Muppets and includes themes that are very similar to those included in the Toy Story franchise
  • Above Then Beyond, an animation by Yannick Banchereau that features an elderly resident attaching a hot air balloon to her house and drifting away from a large corporate building site that’s appeared around her quaint home, a theme that features as the basis of Disney Pixar’s Up
  • A Frozen trailer that allegedly borrowed heavily from a short animation by Kelly Wilson titled The Snowman – Wilson brought a copyright infringement case against Disney, who settled damages out of court
  • An animation short titled Cortex Academy, by Frédéric Mayer and Cédric Jeanne, which features various parts of a person’s brain interacting as characters and portraying various emotions – a theme that underpins recent Inside Out, Disney’s Oscar winner from 2015
  • Artwork for a character called Wise G’Eye by Stanley Mouse, who is alleged to bear close similarities to Monsters, Inc. protagonist Mike Wazowski – Wise G’Eye’s artist brought a case against Disney over the similarities

Each of these examples are provided in Goldman’s claim and allegedly show that Disney has an apparent “culture” of copying others’ intellectual property – however only two of the above resulted in a court case.

Zootopia Franchise

During his pitches to Disney executives in 2000 and 2009 it is alleged that Goldman outlined an entire franchise under the umbrella name of ‘Zootopia’ and while his original story does not seem to follow the same buddy cop plot in the final release of Disney’s flick it is claimed that the theme of an animation that metaphorically explores life in America through anthropomorphic animals was closely copied by Disney.

Another theme that Goldman claims have been copied without permission by Disney is that different species of anthropomorphic species live in their own unique neighbourhoods that are based on real world environments, featuring clubs, schools, workplaces and other such buildings.

Finally it is claimed that character designs have been pulled from Goldman’s original pitches to Disney, with his own plot even featuring a “small, cute, furry female animal who is an outsider”, however it is not thought that this was a rabbit in Goldman’s version, as it was in Disney’s.

For their part, Disney released a statement on the lawsuit claiming:

“Mr. Goldman’s lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations. It is an unprincipled attempt to lay claim to a successful film he didn’t create, and we will vigorously defend against it in court.”

Discussing the complexities of a copyright infringement case such as this, Luke said:

“This is a unique position for Disney, who are more well known for bringing cases of copyright infringements against the plethora of businesses and individuals that are either inspired by, or downright copied from, images owned by Disney.”

“While the intricacies of US and UK copyright law differ the overarching aim is the same, to protect intellectual property from being unlawfully copied without fair credit or reparation.”

“Ultimately the case will rest on whether Mr Goldman will be able to, show that he owned the work that he has claimed has been unlawfully copied; highlight that there is substantial similarity between his work and the Disney’s final product; and that Disney had access to the work that he is claiming to have been copied. It will be interesting to see how this one pans out over the coming months.”

Written by Luke Corcoran.

For more information on commercial law and the services offered by Simpson Millar, please call:

0808 129 3304

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