Copyright suit over Disney’s Frozen trailer moves forward

A federal Judge in California denied Disney’s motion for summary judgment in a copyright infringement case filed by the creator of a short animated film.  The 4 minute, 30 second long film, titled “The Snowman” was written by Kelly Wilson between 2008 and 2010 and tells the story of a Charlie Chaplin-esque snowman whose carrot nose falls off his face and slides out into the middle of a frozen pond, catching the eyes of a pack of hungry rabbits.  Both the snowman and the rabbits slip and slide towards the center of the pond trying to get the carrot.  When one of the rabbits falls though the ice, the snowman selflessly uses the carrot to reach the rabbit, who grabs the carrot and is able to get out of the frigid water safely.  The rabbit then graciously gives the snowman his carrot back.  The whole film can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJ6c7RLV8ew&spfreload=1

Anyone who is familiar with Disney’s Frozen knows that this is not the plot of the blockbuster film.  But the trailer that Disney released in June of 2013 doesn’t exactly track what happens in the full feature.  The trailer starts with Frozen’s snowman character, Olaf, losing his carrot nose after a powerful sneeze sends the carrot sliding into the middle of a frozen pond.  The sliding carrot catches the eye of Sven, a reindeer standing near the pond.  Olaf and Sven slip and slide across the ice feverishly trying to get the carrot.  In the end, Sven ends up with the carrot but unexpectedly gives it back to Olaf in a show of friendship.  See the whole trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WdC4DaYIeQ 

Wilson’s suit survived a motion to dismiss but Disney tried again to knock it out again on summary judgment, arguing that Disney couldn’t have copied any aspects of the original because Disney never had access to the Snowman. Disney argued that web traffic records show that no one from Disney ever watched the Snowman on Youtube and only Wilson’s friends watched the film on Vimeo.  According to its motion for summary judgment, Disney issued 80,000 pages of discovery -enough to easily bury a small firm or blow a small plaintiff’s legal budget- yet plaintiff still couldn’t produce a smoking gun.

Wilson argued that the internet was not the only place where the film was available for viewing.  In fact, The Snowman was screened at several film festivals including  at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was screened 4 times back to back with a film created by employees of Pixar, a Disney subsidiary.  Moreover, an employee of Pixar who attended the festival actually works with the John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer for both Pixar and Disney and who actually helped create the Frozen trailer.

When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court essentially evaluates the case to see if there are any genuine issues of material fact that would warrant the case proceeding to trial.  In this case, the judge ruled that despite Disney’s contention that Wilson couldn’t prove that anyone from Disney actually viewed The Snowman, roughly 16 Pixar employees saw the film and Wilson and her agent actually sent Disney job applications that linked to the film.  All of that plus the fact that the story lines were so similar indicated that there were genuine issues about Disney’s access to The Snowman.

Disney’s strategy is one that well-heeled defendants frequently use when they are sued by a plaintiff with a huge economic disadvantage: give the plaintiff a haystack and challenge her to find the needle…just make sure the haystack is hay mountain.  It’s easy to see how a small law firm could instantly grind to standstill trying to review, organize, and process 80,000 pages of discovery.  Moreover, many plaintiffs know that they can’t afford to pay their lawyers to actually do the work.  Then at summary judgment, the defendant argues that it disclosed everything imaginable but plaintiff couldn’t find a single shred of evidence to back up her claims.

Now that Disney’s motion was denied, the court will want the parties to set a trial date or try to settle the case.  Wilson should feel good knowing she made it past two big hurdles, especially when up against a powerful opponent who no doubt does not want to be known as a creative raider that steals ideas from small film makers and then turns them into billion dollar blockbusters.