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Everybody Wanted to Sue Disney in 1940

It’s no secret that the Walt Disney Company is fiercely protective of its intellectual property, but the law works both ways, and they’ve been accused of wrongdoing almost from the moment that Walt’s company became successful. While researching my upcoming biography of Ward Kimball, I found a reference to a “Mann lawsuit” in his notes from 1940. Ward wrote about how animator Fred Moore had been questioned by Mann’s attorneys, as well as how animator Ham Luske had testified on the stand.

I became curious to learn more about what the lawsuit was all about. The plaintiff was Ned Herbert Mann, a well respected veteran special effects artist who had started his career working with the production designer William Cameron Menzies on The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Mann believed that he had patented an animation process back in 1934 that was similar to Disney’s and he was trying to prove that Walt had traced the mouths of characters off of photostats while producing Snow White. The Disney company was eventually able to prove that the claim was completely baseless and the judge dismissed the case.

The only information I could find online regarding the case was an article from the St. Petersburg Times from June 29, 1940. You can read the entire article below. The article is fascinating, not just for the information it provides about the Mann case, but also because it lists some of the dozens of other cases filed against Disney at the time. According to the Disney studio’s attorney Gunther Lessing, “The trouble seems to be that almost everybody sees one of his brain children somewhere in Disney’s cartoons.” Some of the cases against Disney at the time included:

* Adriana Caselotti, the voice of the character Snow White, had sued Disney because some of the songs she sang had been released as records, and she wanted a share of the record profits. The case was thrown out when Lessing produced a document that proved “she had signed all her rights in her performance to Disney every time she put her signature to her paycheck.”

* A guy in California filed a lawsuit because he claimed that one of the dwarfs used his laugh or “an exact imitation.”

* A woman filed a lawsuit which claimed that while Disney hadn’t copied her words or music, he had infringed on the spiritual feeling of her work.

* A gas station operator in Minnesota claimed he had sold 15 gallons of gas to an animator who was on vacation, and that he had suggested to the artist that the Disney studio produce Pinocchio.

The article also talks about how Disney had sued a biscuit company that was making unauthorized Mickey, Pluto and Horace Horsecollar animal crackers. The Disney company sued for $24 million dollars, but eventually settled out of court for $8,000.

Here’s the entire piece:

Walt Disney and Lawyers

  • wasn’t Disney’s lawyer originally a lawyer for mexican “bandido’ Pancho Villa?

  • Ben

    That’s pretty fascinating. I’m sure there have been similar lawsuits ever since. And, now that Disney has become so large, there are probably exponentially more of them.

    I’m sure there may be legitimate ones in there, where Disney did cross the line somewhere, but so many of these are just people being greedy.

    It’s interesting about Adriana Caselotti, for two reasons. One, is that maybe if she waited long enough, like Peggy Lee, she might have won…but obviously she just dropped it after it being thrown out. The other thing, is that she doesn’t seem to have any bitterness, or at least she doesn’t say it, because she’s always been at conventions and signings and other fan “meet ‘n greets”.

    • Adriana is the personally type to let things “slide” it appears(*going by how enamored she sounds when speaking about her Disney days)

      Apparently, and legally, she signs ALL her rights away when she voiced Snow White. She couldn’t even sing form any other record company or show because Disney wanted to preserve the image and sound of Snow White.

      If that’s not a sign of a control freak.. I don’t know what is.

    • Bobby Bickert

      And she did new Snow White voicework for Disneyland.

    • David Breneman

      There is the possibility that she was goaded into suing Disney by a friend or family member. Such a thing isn’t unheard of in the annals of law.

  • Gerald H

    The name “Marjorie Velcher” is an apparent typo. The roto model for Snow White was then named Marjorie Belcher, who later became Mrs. Art Babbitt. In Life magazine around that time she was identified as Marge Bell, perhaps in some attempt to make her real last name more palatable for publicity. But “Velcher” is most likely just a typo.

  • Old Man Father Time

    I heard of that one guy who tried to take Disney to court when he discovered their movie Cars stole his own idea for car characters. Yeah, Disney’s always had lawsuits.

    • Funkybat

      In this day and age, I’m not sure what these kinds of plaintiffs hope to achieve, other than to enrich lawyers on both sides. It’s well known that Disney has a large and aggressive legal team. Why anyone would go on a fool’s errand like suing because you “had an idea for a talking car cartoon” is beyond me. The fact is, even if someone actually had a legitimate claim against Disney for “stealing an idea” they would most likely lose. My bet is most of these people are delusional and/or lawsuit-happy.

      I suppose the lawsuits back in the 30s and 40s were more understandable, Disney was a growing startup studio, and people thought they could pull a fast one on them. Those days were already long gone, Walt learned the lessons of legal chicanery well back in his Oswald days, and made sure he’d never be the one over the barrel again.

      • Michael parry

        Disney is getting worse and worse, it’s about damn time one of these worked so Disney could finally get comeuppance. One day it BETTER work. full stop.

  • Most of those cases are laughable.

    Didn’t you know, Disney and his artists stole from EVERYONE! ;) What “artist” doesn’t (*sad to say)

    In the case of Adriana Caselotti, I feel for her. Little did she know she signed ALL her rights away when she voiced Snow White. She couldn’t even sing for ANYONE ELSE because Disney felt her voice belonged to the success of Snow White. That’s pretty sad.

    She must have had a bad lawyer/representative.

  • Ryoku

    Heh, so barrels of sues over silly things is nothing new.

    Though I have to admit, as silly as these reasons are they’re certainly more amusing than recent sues.

  • Another lawsuit occured in 1938 when a fellow said he had provided the original idea for the short Mickey’s Polo Team. This fellow claimed in court that Will Rogers suggested he call in at the Disney Studio with his idea, which he did. The fellow claimed to have left a proposal for a cartoon that was returned to him with a note saying the studio wasn’t interested. He then claimed the idea for Mickey’s Polo Team was the one he had submitted. The case was dismissed by the judge.

    And while there were no lawsuits, when Disney began work on developing Roald Dahls’ Gremlins manuscript in 1942/43, at least two other Royal Air Force personnel sent Walt and Roald letters saying the premise for Roald’s Gremlins story was based on characters they had developed, and that Roald had, in effect, stolen their ideas. In both instances senior leaders from the R.A.F. stepped in to quash any further action stating it would be bad form to puruse the issue further, considering part proceeds from any film were going to be donated to the R.A.F. Benevolent Fund.

  • [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Be considerate and respectful of others in the discussion. Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • Ah, for the days when Horace Horsecollar was popular enough to be illegally mooched by external parties.

  • Floyd Norman

    I kept Disney’s legal team busy while writing Mickey Mouse. Cartoons may be crazy – but the world is insane.

  • dbenson

    The Disney brothers probably learned a few things about Hollywood hardball from Charles Mintz and Pat Powers. What began as aggressive self-defense quickly became standard industry bullying.

    Creatives in any industry have a hard time of it. Used to be, publishers actually printed releases on the backs of checks so it was impossible for writers to cash them without accepting those terms (a little like OKing a software agreement). Now more than ever, the business model is to cut the creators out as soon as possible while making the creations into permanent revenue streams. Only public shaming on the eve of the big movie got DC — by then Warner-owned — to toss some money to the impoverished Superman team.

    Voice artists — at least the ones who voice Disney princesses — do a bit better now. Years back, Paige O’Hara (Belle) parried an interviewer’s question about money, but did say the soundtrack recordings paid more than the movie itself. Sam Wright said Sebastian the crab put his kids through school, but there again he was on the soundtrack and did additional Disney CDs as the character.

    As for the theft issue, there are real cases out there — look up “The Island” and “The Clonus Horror”; and it’s an open question whether “The Lion King” was a ripoff of “Kimba” or a story that just found its own way there (in my youth, I carefully worked out a scifi story that was very much the X-Men in civvies — although I never read the comic or knew its premise until after I’d abandoned my project). But we still have the thinner-than-paper claims. In recent years, someone tried to claim that “Monsters Inc” was based on a short poem that said the monster in the closet (a venerable cliché) was friendly.

    Problem is, Hollywood is so cliché-driven that it’s hard to tell if one guy is stealing from another or if they’re both stealing from a third guy who stole from a Victorian melodrama.

  • Gerald H

    Adriana Caselotti did perform exactly one other known Voiceover line in a major Hollywood motion picture after Snow White. In the MGM 1939 “Wizard of Oz” it is her sung, off stage vocal that pops in out of nowhere in the middle of Jack Haley’s Tin Man rendition of “If I Only Had a Heart,” to warble the words “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” in her distinctive soprano. Perhaps it was that one example that got Walt and Gunther Lessing to strictly enforce their legal edict that the woman who voiced Snow White never work for anyone else in Hollywood thereafter. If she only she’d had an agent.

  • zeprin

    Build a better mouse trap, and the Tort Lawyers will beat a path to your bank account.