Is Disney a Copy-Cat? Esplanade Productions Files “Zootopia” Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

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Image via Screen Rant

Disney has found itself in some hot water again. The multinational entertainment conglomerate is facing a significant lawsuit alleging that the Oscar-winning animated film Zootopia was actually stolen from a reputable author, Gary L. Goldman, who’s writing credits include Total Recall, Minority Report, and Next.  The claim seeks relief for Copyright Infringement (Direct, Contributory and Vicarious), Breach of Implied-In-Fact Contract, Breach of Confidence, and Unfair Competition.

On Tuesday, Esplanade Productions, Inc. filed a complaint in California federal courts. Esplanade Productions is being represented by the distinguished law firm of Quinn Emanuel. The complaint opens with a direct quote from Zootopia director Byron Howard. Howard said, “Don’t worry if you feel like you’re copying something because if it comes through you, it’s going to filter through you and you’re going to bring your own unique perspective to it.”

right animated GIF
Via Popkey
The lawsuit also points to other Disney films as being stolen works. The lawsuit alleges that Disney stole the ideas of Toy Story, The Lion King, Up, Inside Out, Monsters Inc. and more.
Excerpt from Page 1 of the complaint.
Eriq Gardner, The Hollywood Reporter via DocumentCloud

The complaint states:

“They did it with Zootopia, too, when they copied Gary L. Goldman’s Zootopia,” states the complaint. “Twice — in 2000 and 2009 — Goldman, on behalf of Esplanade, pitched Defendants his ideas in the complaint. “Twice — in 2000 and 2009 — Goldman, on behalf of Esplanade, pitched Defendants his Zootopia franchise, which included a live-action component called Looney and an animated component called Zootopia. He provided a treatment, a synopsis, character descriptions, character illustrations and other materials. He even provided a title for the franchise: ‘Zootopia.’ Instead of lawfully acquiring Goldman’s work, Defendants said they were not interested in producing it and sent him on his way. Thereafter, consistent with their culture of unauthorized copying, Defendants copied Goldman’s work. They copied Goldman’s themes, settings, plot, characters, and dialogue — some virtually verbatim.”

The complaint also addresses the possible copying of the artwork for characters.

Disney had previously engaged Goldman on projects. In 2007, Goldman said he was hired by Disney to write a screenplay called Blaze, which was based on a Stan Lee comic. Zootopia follows Judy Hops, a small-town bunny with dreams of moving to the big city to become a cop. With the aid of her con artist fox friend Nick Wilde, the two unravel a hidden conspiracy. Goldman claims in the lawsuit that the source for these character descriptions had to have been from him because of his detailed work offering descriptions about characters and other elements.

The lawsuit claims that in 2000, Goldman pitched former Disney executive and Mandeville Films’ CEO David Hoberman at Disney’s offices.  The complaint further outlines that everybody who attended the meeting “understood that writers pitch ideas and materials to studios and producers in confidence in order to sell those ideas and materials for financial compensation.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Goldman returned nine years later to pitch the movie again.

“At the time, Goldman was working on Blaze with Brigham Taylor who, Esplanade is informed and believes, was Walt Disney Pictures’ Executive Vice President of Production and Development at the time,” continues the complaint. “Because Goldman had this existing relationship with Taylor, Goldman offered to pitch the Goldman Zootopia to Taylor on behalf of Defendants, and Taylor accepted Goldman’s offer. On or about February 12, 2009, Goldman met with Taylor at Defendants’ offices in Burbank, California.”

This is when Disney allegedly decided to make their own Zootopia and replicate similar expressions to those of Goldman’s film. The lawsuit handled by attorney Jeffrey McFarland, states the alleged violation of plaintiff’s copyrights as well as breach of implied contract, breach of confidence and unfair competition. Disney’s Zootopia made over $1 billion worldwide in box offices, which means a lot of money is on the line. Esplanade is seeking an injunction, monetary damages, and damages of the punitive kind.

Copyright law protects the expression of original works of authorship from unauthorized copying. However, copyright infringement is when a work protected by copyright law is used without permission.

According to Perdue Law the legal penalties for copyright infringement are:

  1. Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
  2. The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
  3. Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs.
  4. The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
  5. The Court can impound the illegal works.
  6. The infringer can go to jail.

A spokesperson for Disney said in a statement — “Mr. Goldman’s lawsuit is riddled with patently false allegations. It is an unprincipled attempt to lay claim to a successful film he didn’t create, and we will vigorously defend against it in court.”

A key takeaway for striving writers is to ensure you set up proper legal protection for all of your creative work. Enlist good representation prior to engaging with those who may “make your work their own” prior to sharing your ideas.  And good notes and documentation from your pitch meetings may have a significant impact on any future actions you need to take if your work is stolen.  Time will tell if Goldman had all of his “ducks” in a row.

(Read the full complaint here)

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