Tuesday, June 6, 2017


As sometimes happens when a wildly successful movie hits the big screen, cries of "Theft!" fill the stagnant courtroom air.

Esplanade Pictures sued Disney in March, claiming its film copied the work of Total Recall writer Gary L. Goldman, who had pitched his Zootopia franchise idea to the animation powerhouse in 2000 and 2009. In May, Disney filed a motion to dismiss, telling the court there isn't enough evidence of substantial similarity between the works for the complaint to proceed and arguing that this is the latest in "a long history of plaintiffs coming out of the woodwork after a motion picture has achieved critical and financial success to claim credit — and proceeds — where none is due." ...

[Esplanade attorney Gary] Gans acknowledges there are differences between the two Zootopia films, but argues that just because some of the elements aren't infringing doesn't mean the work as a whole also isn't. In Goldman's story, a live-action human animator creates a "cartoon world of animated anthropomorphic animals called 'Zootopia'" — and, while Disney's film includes no live-action elements, Esplanade claims it copies characters, dialogue, artwork, plot points and themes. ...

Plagiarism and copyright infringement lawsuits are notoriously difficult to make stick against well-funded entertainment conglomerates. And this is, after all, Zootopia -- a property filled with talking animals in clothes, the types of characters the Mouse has done more than a few times before.

But sometimes plaintiffs win. A quarter century ago, Art Buchwald sued Paramount for swiping his treatment and story ideas for Coming To America starring Eddie Murphy. buchwald was in a position to prove that Paramount had indeed seen, optioned and put into his development his idea of a black African King coming to America and learning what hard times are like long before the film came out.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Paramount exec at the time of the movie's development, was called to testify and had a major case of amnesia on the stand. He didn't remember much of anything about Buchwald's treatment, or what happened to the property when a movie (initially) failed to be made from it. (Jeffrey usually had a razor sharp memory, but I guess there are times when holes open up inside the old brain pan).

If the plaintiffs can prove that Disney saw/reviewed the treatment, then the plaintiffs might have the whisper of a chance to get somewhere. But otherwise not. The Mouse is well-guarded by expensive, highly trained lawyers.

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