ENTERTAINMENT LITIGATION: DISNEY/PIXAR DEFEAT COPYRIGHT LAWSUIT

STUDIO WINS ENTERTAINMENT LITIGATION RELATING TO “CARS” FRANCHISE

The studios behind the “Cars” motion picture franchise ended their July with a bang — winning their litigation in Los Angeles federal court over the creation of the franchise. Cars II Movie PosterLast Wednesday, July 27, 2011, Judge Valerie Baker Fairbank of the US District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles dismissed all claims against the Walt Disney Company, Pixar and studio-related companies filed by a plaintiff who claimed that the highly successful “Cars” films were based upon his copyrighted screenplay and treatment.

Plaintiff Jake Mandeville-Anthony alleged that Disney/Pixar and the other defendants infringed upon his copyrights in two prior works and that the studios owed him compensation for using his materials based upon an implied contract. Mandeville-Anthony’s pursuit of damages against these studios came to an abrupt end with Judge Fairbank’s order dismissing his entire case on the pleadings.

After the jump, I’ll discuss the issues raised by the claims in this case and the import of the court’s decision dismissing the case at such an early stage.

THE FACTS

Mandeville-Anthony filed suit in March 2011 alleging that the studio defendants used his prior screenplay “Cookie & Co.” and a treatment he called by various titles (including “Cars” and “Cars Chaos”) when they made the original “Cars” motion picture as well as the sequel “Cars II” and a spin-off series “Cars Toon.” (Read a copy of the complaint here.) Mandeville-Anthony alleged that he sent his screenplays and treatments to various production companies, including The Walt Disney Company and Pixar. That access, according to Mandeville-Anthony, gave the studios the ability to copy and steal his works.

Mandeville-Anthony’s complaint made detailed allegations concerning his prior works. Mandeville-Anthony claimed that the “Cars” movies were substantially similar to “the characters, plots, themes, settings, moods and sequencing” in his prior works. According to his complaint, the main elements copied were cartoon cars — what Mandeville-Anthony called “car characters [that] would be ‘anthropomorphic'” — a fancy way of saying that the animated cars possessed human traits — and that the works were “without humans or reference to humans anywhere in the story or as characters.” In other words, Mandeville-Anthony’s claimed that the “Cars” movies copied his works in that they were about cars who could talk, interacted with each other in the context of a race and did not have any human characters.

The studios countered with a fairly standard defense that these elements identified in the complaint were “ideas” which are not protected by copyright. In particular, the idea of animated, anthropomorphic car characters is unprotectable and that characters that flow naturally from a “basic plot idea” are “scenes a faire” and unprotectable. The studios also pointed to differences in the plot, the settings between the works and the way the characters were depicted.

These defenses are typical in a case when the defendant claims that the plaintiff’s work or idea was fairly simple and that the defendant’s work was independently created.

THE COURT’S ORDER DISMISSING THE CASE

The battle of “substantial similarity” between competing works can involve a heavily factual analysis. While courts have routinely decided these issues prior to a trial, courts usually wait until summary judgment motions so that the court can accept evidence. It is somewhat unusual to have a court decide it on the pleadings. That is exactly what Judge Fairbank did here.

The studios moved for judgment on the pleadings — a motion akin to a motion to dismiss at the outset of a case. In granting that motion, the court’s order analyzed in detail the differences between Mandeville-Anthony’s works (as alleged in the complaint) and the “Cars” movies. She agreed with the studios’ contention that many of Mandeville-Anthony’s claimed similarities between the works were “basic plot ideas” and unprotected by copyright law. Judge Fairbank then analyzed the differences of protectable elements between the “Cars” characters, movie plots, themes and settings and those in Mandeville-Anthony’s works. For example, Judge Fairbank found that Mandeville-Anthony’s works “depicts all cars with headlights as eyes, while [the studios] use the entire windshield.” After her analysis of the works, Judge Fairbank held that the studios “have sufficiently shown that the protectable elements of such [movies] as plot, sequence of events, pace, characters, theme, mood and setting are not substantially similar as a matter of law.”

Judge Fairbank also dismissed Mandeville-Anthony’s claim for implied breach of contract as time-barred. Since the first “Cars” movie was released in 2006, and the statute of limitations for breach of implied contract is two years, the court dismissed those claims as untimely.

You can read the court’s minute order here.

TAKEAWAYS

Judge Fairbank’s decision that the implied contract claims were timed barred is a decision is unremarkable. That kind of decision is routinely made on a pleadings motion — and it should have come as no surprise to any of the parties.

However, the most interesting aspect of Judge Fairbank’s order is her willingness to undertake the “substantial similarity” analysis at the pleadings stage. While Mandeville-Anthony’s complaint makes a fairly detailed recitation of the elements of his work which he claims were copied in the “Cars” movies, including a comparison of those elements to the elements in the “Cars” movies, Judge Fairbank’s willingness to make a case-dispositive decision comparing the works at the pleadings stage is unusual — particularly since the court was bound to assume the truth of Mandeville-Anthony’s pleadings.

Thus, critical to Judge Fairbank’s order deciding the case as a matter of law was her holding that “ideas” cannot be copyrighted. So the exclusion of very basic ideas — such as the “anthropomorphic” car characters interacting with each other during a race and the utter lack of human characters — was key to being able to adjudicate the case at the pleadings stage. When those basic ideas are ignored, there are few other supposed similarities between the works — and the case was ripe for decision as a matter of law.

I agree with Judge Fairbank’s decision — and the result. Her willingness to decide a case early on should be applauded. Too often, judges will simply allow a marginal (if not meritless) case to proceed through discovery and withhold any decision on the merits until the summary judgment motion stage — even though claims might be barred on the face of the complaint by the statute of limitations or other legal principle. The unwillingness to make a decision — either way — contributes to the tremendously high cost of litigation. Discovery through summary judgment motions can costs tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. So while Mandeville-Anthony and his lawyers are undoubtedly dissatisfied with such a result so early in their litigation, I find it laudable that Judge Fairbank cut to the chase quickly.

That’s my $.02 — and obviously I find myself representing defendants in these types of cases more than plaintiffs, which may help explain my perspective.