Kelly Wilson, the creator of a short 2D computer-animated film entitled The Snowman, has survived the first round in a copyright lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company over its teaser trailer to the blockbuster film, Frozen.
In a ruling on Disney’s motion to dismiss, California federal judge Vince Chhabria writes, “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.”
Wilson’s lawsuit was filed this past March. Her animated short featured an “average Joe” snowman who must battle to save his carrot nose. Not the plot of Frozen, but as the lawsuit pointed out, the Frozen trailer wasn’t very representative of the full-length film either.
Judge Chhabria notes how both The Snowman and the Frozen trailer contain the following sequence of events:
“(i) a snowman loses his carrot nose; (ii) the nose slides out to the middle of a 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 to the nose first; (v) the screen pans back and forth from the snowman to the animal, set to music, as they endeavor to get to 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.”
Such detail means a reasonable jury can find the sequence to rise above a generic idea into artistic expression.
Disney attempted to stop the lawsuit by referencing an appeals court’s ruling in Funky Films, brought by the writer of a screenplay called “The Funk Parlor” who alleged being infringed by HBO’s Six Feet Under. In that case, both works began with the same premise of a family-run funeral home confronting the unexpected death of the father. The works then diverged, leading an appeals court to conclude they weren’t substantially similar.
The judge overseeing the Frozen lawsuit uses Disney’s case law citation to amusedly re-imagine Six Feet Under.
“Imagine a hypothetical Six Feet Under that is a three-hour movie instead of a five-season television series,” he writes. “Imagine that Nate and Brenda have their liaison at the airport, a romantic relationship ensues, Brenda starts killing people, she decides Nate should be her next victim, Nate discovers this and gets her arrested, she goes to prison the rest of her life, and the movie ends.”
That would be closer to “The Funk Parlor,” and even if differences remain, the judge says it would be similar enough to “let it go” to jury.
The judge notes some difference between The Snowman and the Frozen trailer like one’s goofy while the other is somewhat dour. But that’s outweighed by what can reasonably be seen as the same — at least at this stage of the litigation. Given the judge’s impression, if this case doesn’t settle, it seems primed to go to trial. Fortunately for Disney, some of their liability could be contained by the judge’s dismissal of a claim that the full Frozen movie, which grossed $1.27 billion at the worldwide box office, infringed Wilson’s work. Nevertheless, it’s a big step forward for Wilson and her attorneys J. Paul Gignac and Mischa Barteau in a realm of copyright law that’s traditionally been very unfriendly for plaintiffs.