Around two months ago, Disney had fallen on the wrong side of a lawsuit claiming that their Oscar-winning production, Zootopia was stolen. Esplanade Productions Inc. had filed the lawsuit claiming that the company copied the ideas of screenwriter and producer Gary Goldman without authorization for the use of his intellectual property.
Gary Goldman, has written the screenplays for films like Big Trouble in Little China, Next and Total Recall and claimed that Disney, not only stole his concept but also the animated film’s title, treatment, character designs and dialogues from a franchise project he had originally pitched to Disney. Additionally, the lawsuit also accused Disney of having plagiarized content for many of their other big banners like The Lion King, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Inside Out.
Goldman is represented by the prominent law firm of Quinn Emanuel while, Disney has, in turn, opted for Daniel Petrocelli, a power litigator at O'Melveny, to lead the defense. Disney’s choice for a Petrocelli can be interpreted from two perspectives – that they’re either taking a no-nonsense zero-tolerance stance towards these proclaimed money-grubbing scams or that they are not as unphased by the threat as they are putting themselves out to be.
Regardless, the giant has come up with their rebuttals, and things are looking like they might just shift in their favor. They have gone for a fairly straightforward approach, moving to get the case dismissed based on the grounds that Esplanade's complaint hasn't plausibly demonstrated enough substantial similarity between Zootopia and Goldman's work, dubbed Looney.
Petrocelli’s main rebuttal focuses on aspects that are the most obvious – a live action film versus an animated motion picture, a human protagonist versus a bunny protagonists and so on. "Looney is a treatment and synopsis for a live-action picture about the struggles and growth of a male human animator who creates a world of animated characters," he writes. "Zootopia is an animated motion picture about a bunny protagonist who interacts only with anthropomorphic talking animals. There are no humans, and there is no live-action component."
The dismissal motion further argues Esplanade’s stance on merely pleading "similarity of high-level ideas" – this is a problem because, copyright protects expression, not ideas. Simply put, Esplanade allegations were that the idea of a ‘buddy movie that features two contrasting protagonists who partner to solve a problem in the face of adversity’ that is common between both Zootopia and Looney was stolen from the latter. However, basic and typical plot outlines such as this have always been dismissed by courts as being unprotected is what Petrocelli is going for.
The third point from the allegations that Disney is aiming to counter is the motion on character similarity – and Petrocelli is looking at the issue from two points of views – the broad and the micro. From a broader perspective, Esplanade attacked Disney based on the fact that Looney and Zootopia both were centered around animated, talking animals. Disney has pushed back saying that merely the use of animated characters in production is unprotected by copyright law. Furthermore, looking into character-by-character descriptions, Petrocelli points out: "Judy [from Zootopia] is a rabbit; Mimi [Goldman's creation] is a squirrel. Judy is shown wearing a police officer’s uniform; Mimi wears no clothing at all. Judy is a complex three-dimensional, full-color, computer-animated character; Mimi is a two-dimensional hand drawing. No reasonable juror could view these two characters and conclude that they are substantially similar."
Lastly, on the claim that the name of the movie itself, Zootopia, was pitched by Goldman himself, is being countered by the defendants on the basis that the word Zootopia has been used previously in another real world context, implying that since Goldman had obviously not invented the word, its usage was not protected by copyright law.
"For example, since at least 2012, the name 'Zootopia' has been associated with a zoo in Denmark," states the dismissal motion. "And it has been used since 1999 as the name of a New York area radio station’s annual concert series. Plaintiff’s insinuation that it alone created and coined the term is flatly wrong.”
Zootopia made more than $1 billion worldwide and received critical acclaim, winning both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for best animated picture, meaning that there are high stakes for the results of the controversial lawsuit for Disney. A Californian judge will further decide whether Goldman will be able to go forward with the lawsuit based on his allegation or if, as Disney has moved, the case will be dismissed.