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What's in an idea? Expressing Zootopia

Just how similar, is too similar?

Many readers, especially those with children, may have seen Zootopia (trailer above), a recent animated tale following the adventures of a rabbit police officer in a modern-day animal metropolis. Zootopia was a critical and commercial hit for Disney, grossing over USD one billion at the box office world-wide. It is a film that has been touted as the second highest grossing original intellectual property of all time behind James Cameron’s Avatar. 

That originality, however, is now being brought into question with Disney being sued by screenwriter Gary Goldman for intellectual property infringement.

Mr Goldman is perhaps best known as the screenwriter of Total Recall (the 1990 version) and Big Trouble in Little China. The complaint, filed by Goldman's production company 'Esplanade Productions' in a Californian Federal Court by prominent law firm Quinn Emmanuel seeks an injunction as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

Goldman alleges the film Zootopia resembles a treatment that Goldman had originally developed in 2000 also titled Zootopia. The suit alleges the characters, themes, plot, settings and some of the dialogue all share substantial similarities. Goldman had registered the treatment with the Writer’s Guild of America and had also gone further and developed artwork to illustrate how various characters in his treatment would look. 

So did Disney, in developing their own Zootopia motion picture, infringe Mr Goldman’s intellectual property and not compensate him for his work?

It’s worth noting that ideas such as talking animals with human characteristics have been around for a long time. In Australia, copyright does not protect film ideas (or any ideas for that matter), so saying that you have a great idea for film is not something you can attach copyright to.

An idea is ultimately just a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.

Copyright protects the skill and labour involved in a material expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lots of people have lots of ideas about lots of things that they never follow through on materially expressing. As Thomas Edison once said: ”the value of an idea lies in using it”.

Because the idea itself is not covered by copyright, it is therefore possible to have two similar works, developed independently, that are based on the same idea and no infringement of copyright will have taken place. For example, there is a phenomenon in the film industry known as ‘twin films’ where films with the same general idea are often released at around the same time by different film studios. For instance, the films 'White House Down' and ‘Olympus Has Fallen', released the same year, both share a similar idea of an attack on the White House, but importantly, were independently developed and are distinctly different in their execution. Another way to look at this is, if two people painted the same landscape, then, provided one did not copy the other, there is no inherent infringement as neither owns the idea of the landscape.

As a side note, whilst ideas can’t be protected by copyright they can be protected in other ways. You can, for instance, enter into confidentiality agreements with people whom you wish to discuss your idea with, and this will restrict them from using or disclosing such information and will open them up to contractual damages in the event of breaching those obligations.

In the case of Zootopia, the idea was expressed in a material form (namely Goldman's treatment and concept art) so the question turns to whether the alleged infringing party (Disney) had access to that expression of an idea and whether Disney’s work was substantially similar.

With respect to access, Goldman alleges he pitched the project to David Hoberman, a former Disney studio executive in 2000 and later in 2009 also to a current Disney executive, Brigham Taylor, with whom he also left the Zootopia treatment and artwork.

In terms of similarity Goldman argues the two Zootopias, beyond their common name (though it is worth noting that Disney’s film was originally titled ‘Savage Seas’ and Goldman’s work was titled ‘Looney’), share a similar array of characters, themes, plot, settings and some similar dialogue and he points to the similarities in artwork. There are, however, also key differences in story, Goldman’s story for instance does not have a rabbit as the main star and the cartoon world is created by a human animator. It is arguable that the common themes the works share, such as discrimination, are quite broad and can be found in a wide variety of works. In and of themselves, such broad themes do not seem sufficient to establish a clear link between two works.

It’s worth noting this is not the first time that Disney has been sued for allegedly stealing ideas, in fact it has occurred on several occasions. Just recently, in 2016, Disney were involved in a lawsuit (Abdullah V. Walt Disney Co.) alleging that Disney’s animated hit film ‘Frozen’ was substantially similar to a story by children’s author Muneefa Abdullah. Abdullah had alleged 17 similarities between her children’s book 'The Snow Princess' and the film. These similarities included alleged similarities in the characters, plot, theme and dialogue. In that case, however, the court went on to find that there was no substantial similarity in any of the areas listed, dismissing the two works as only sharing, at the most, general passing similarities. Nor for that matter did the court feel that Disney would have necessarily had access to Abdullah’s book simply on the basis of it being sold world-wide and one of the co-producers of Frozen having worked some time ago at the publisher of 'The Snow Princess'. Abdullah is appealing.

As the saying goes, "ideas are a dime a dozen," but when an idea starts to be expressed into something more tangible, its value may start to increase as well as the potential for disputes. Whether or not Gary Goldman will be more successful than the likes of Muneefa Abdullah remains to be seen as we keenly await the outcome of the case.

This information is intended for guidance purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.


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