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‘Frozen’: Disney at Risk of Jury Trial over Copyright Infringement

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U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria denied Walt Disney Company’s effort to strike a copyright lawsuit that a trailer for their multi-billion dollar blockbuster Frozen featuring the character Olaf was “substantially similar” to a Mill Valley, California, animator’s film short called The Snowman.

Judge Chhabria stated that he has a “fairly strong inclination” that a jury should decide whether the Disney official with creative responsibility for the trailer also had access to Wilson’s computer-animated film. Chhabria stated that he will issue an opinion on the two party’s summary judgment motions, but he seemed to indicate to suit was headed for a jury trial.

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The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) reported a quarterly profit of $2.18 billion, or $1.27 per share, topped Wall Street’s estimates due to the 20 percent rise in park tickets, television network growth, video revenues, and product merchandise sales driven by Frozen‘s continuing strength. The extremely positive financial results sent Disney stock to all-time-record highs in recent months.

Kelly Wilson filed a lawsuit against Disney in March 2014. She claims that the marketing trailer for “Frozen” directly infringed on her copyrighted film. Wilson’s complaint states that she created The Snowman between 2008 and 2010 and that the short was screened at eight film festivals. One of those screenings was at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2011, where she shared the stage with an employee of Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios, which was also screening a film in the same session.

Wilson’s Snowman is the story of a frozen character who has to race to save his carrot nose from a group of ravenously hungry rabbits after it falls off and slides to the middle of a frozen pond. Wilson’s attorney, Arias Ozzell & Cignac, claims the 2013 Frozen trailer featuring Olaf dashing to save his carrot nose in a race to the middle of a frozen pond with a reindeer is substantially similar to Wilson’s film.

Disney animators had access to The Snowman prior to creating their own trailer via the film festivals, the Internet, and a number of job applications that she and her co-creator submitted in applying for employment positions at Disney from 2009 to 2012.

Judge Chhabria denied Disney’s motion to dismiss the case filed by the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson. Although he agreed with Disney that there are certain differences in pace and mood between the short film and the trailer, he found that the two also had similarities. Judge Chhabria stated that the sequence of events depicted in the short film might lead a reasonable juror to find them substantially similar.

Disney’s lawyers claimed that no one involved in the conception or development of the trailer had access to Wilson’s film and only the chief creative officer, John Lasseter, of both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, was involved in the creation of the trailer.

But Judge Chhabria asked Munger, Tolles & Olson’s Kelly Klaus at a 90-minute hearing on Thursday if people who worked with Lasseter had seen the film at the festival, why that was not sufficient to establish access. Klaus responded that no one at Pixar was in a position to have creative input on the trailer, except Lasseter, and that none of the festival-goers told him about The Snowman. The judge did not seem impressed with Disney’s response and said, “We judges at the summary-judgment stage are told not to credit that type of testimony because that is something for the jury to decide.”

Wilson’s short was shown at a film festival alongside, and in competition with, a Pixar employee, the judge pointed out. “That is a much more notable, memorable event than being one of 20,000 people who is trying to get some producer to read your screenplay.”

Judge Chhabria suggested that working in a creative position at Disney’s Pixar unit could be defined as people working in creative positions alongside Lasseter. “The storyboards tell an interesting story,” Chhabria said. “I think it’s a story to be told to the jury.”


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