How similar is "similar" in a copyright infringement suit?
Frozen very quickly captured the hearts of young children and adults all over the world. It seems that every child, girl or boy knows the words to every song, and because of this, most parents have most likely seen the video at least once.
In addition to its popularity, this fan favorite animated movie has meant big business for Disney. It could be Disney’s biggest film ever grossing $1.22 billion as of May of 2014, winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and hosting the biggest selling soundtrack in the U.K. since Mamma Mia!
But could it be that the Frozen trailer is actually a copy of another animated film? For animator Kerry Wilson, the trailer for Frozen is a copy of her 2-D animated short, The Snowman. Wilson is so certain of this that she has filed a copyright infringement suit for infringement against Disney.
Wilson claims that her animated short and the Disney movie Frozen have more than just a “passing resemblance,” and it seems that the courts agree with her. The California federal judge who decided the preliminary rounds of this copyright infringement suit infringement case stated, “The sequence of events in both works, from start to finish, is too parallel to conclude that no reasonable juror could find the works substantially similar.” More specifically, Judge Chhabria describes the parallels between the two animated films:
“(i) a snowman loses his carrot nose (ii) the nose slides out to the middle of the frozen pond (iii) the snowman is on one side of the pond and an animal who covets the nose is on the other (iv) the characters engage in a contest to get the nose first (v) the screen pans back and forth from the moving snowman to the animal, set to music, as they endeavor to get the nose (vi) the contest continues when the snowman and the animal arrive at the nose at the same time (vii) the animal ends up with the nose, leaving the snowman and the viewer to wonder if the snowman’s nose will become food for the animal and (viii) in the end, the animal returns the nose to the snowman.”
It is important to illuminate that this copyright infringement suit is over the trailer for the movie Frozen and Wilson’s animated short, and not for the whole movie Frozen. When Disney heard of the copyright infringement suit, their legal team tried to put a stop to the suit by first arguing that the trailers are not similar, and secondly by referencing a court’s ruling in another case where two television shows, The Funk Parlor and HBO’s Six Feet Under, had the exact same premise (both being about a family run funeral home after a father’s death). The Court of Appeals in this case concluded that the two television series were not similar.
It is a big-deal that Wilson’s copyright infringement suit has made it past the first round of arguments. It means that Disney is certain to face extensive legal costs in continuing to defend the lawsuit and could potentially be hit with a large verdict against it if the suit isn’t settled prior to trial. It is difficult to analyze who is right and who is wrong from court documents and words alone when the issue is a video. Take a look at the links below and see for yourself if you think that the two trailers are substantially similar.
Disney's Frozen Trailer
Kerry Wilson's The Snowman Trailer
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While the stakes are generally higher and the cases more newsworthy when a huge conglomerate like Disney is involved, many copyright lawsuits are filed every day over comparatively smaller matters that are of great importance to the parties involved. Copyrights are broader than movies. In fact, every single business is impacted by copyright law whether they know it or not. The attorneys at Whitcomb Law, P.C. can help your business understand its rights under copyright law and to understand the rights of others in order to avoid potential lawsuits.