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Law

Cartoonist Faces Up To 25 Years in Prison For Failed ‘Kung Fu Panda’ Lawsuit

A federal grand jury indicted amateur cartoonist Jayme Gordon, 51, on December 16, 2015, alleging seven counts of wire fraud and perjury relating to a lawsuit Gordon had filed in 2011 against DreamWorks Animation.

Gordon had claimed that DreamWorks based its 2008 animated feature Kung Fu Panda on his Kung Fu Panda Power pitch, which he claimed to have submitted to DreamWorks previously. He abruptly withdrew his lawsuit in 2013 after DreamWorks attorneys confronted him with evidence he had traced his drawings from a 1996 Disney Lion King coloring book.

Jayme Gordon's lawsuit against DreamWorks unraveled when it was discovered that he had copied his artwork from a "Lion King" coloring book.
Jayme Gordon’s lawsuit against DreamWorks unraveled when it was discovered that he had copied his artwork from a “Lion King” coloring book.

In 1999 and 2000, Gordon registered hundreds of pages of material with the U.S Copyright Office, including a series of drawings and stories entitled Jamie GORDON’s Panda Power, featuring a giant panda named “Kid,” and a little red panda named “Red.” The materials submitted for copyright describe Kid as “serious,” “mature,” and a sort of “big brother” to Red, who is described as “playful,” “mischievous,” and “the more immature” of the two characters.

According to the indictment, Gordon saw a trailer for Kung Fu Panda in early 2008. Gordon then revised his Panda Power drawings and registered them as Kung Fu Panda Power with the Copyright Office in May 2008, prior to the June 2008 release of DreamWorks’ animated feature.

The revisions Gordon made included removing Kid’s mask and medallion and instead depicting Kid in a rope belt and shorts, like the animated film’s lead, Po; descriptions of Kid as “the more immature of the 2 pandas;” and illustrations of Red with more white on his face, to make him look older, like the DreamWorks character Master Shifu. In Kung Fu Panda, the giant panda Po, voiced by comic star Jack Black, is the less mature, accident-prone character, whereas the red panda, Shifu, is the stern kung fu master, voiced by Hollywood elder statesman Dustin Hoffman.

The FBI alleges that Gordon changed the personalities of his characters after he found out about the DreamWorks film.
The FBI alleges that Gordon changed the personalities of his characters after he found out about the DreamWorks film.

In February 2011, Gordon filed a copyright infringement suit against DreamWorks in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. In July 2011, Gordon’s attorneys emailed DreamWorks’ counsel, offering to settle for $12 million and half a percentage royalty on all future Kung Fu Panda sales revenue. One of Gordon’s “expert” witnesses even claimed Gordon had suffered damages of more than $150 million.

During discovery related to the lawsuit, DreamWorks’ attorneys unearthed evidence that on April 10, 2012 Gordon had deliberately erased computer files holding material related to the lawsuit. In fact, Gordon installed and used a program called Permanent Eraser to remove the files, and then deleted Permanent Eraser itself on April 13, 2012.

An expert witness for DreamWorks then pointed out to them that illustrations of Gordon’s pandas that were ostensibly dated 1992 and 1994 were in fact copied from a Disney coloring book that was not released until 1996. DreamWorks concluded that Gordon had backdated the drawings to try to strengthen his copyright claims against DreamWorks.

Then, in a deposition related to that lawsuit, Gordon claimed his illustrations were original and that he did not “directly take elements” from other works, that his drawings were dated 1992 because that was when he drew them, and that he had not changed his characters in any way since he had created them in the early 1990s.

Gordon's personal drawing style looked amateurish in comparison to the drawings that he copied from other sources.
Gordon’s personal drawing style looked amateurish in comparison to the drawings that he copied from other sources.

The Cybercrime Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston will now prosecute Gordon, alleging that, when his attorneys sent four emails on his behalf related to the lawsuit, including requests for discovery and a settlement proposal, Gordon “did knowingly transmit…by means of wire communication in interstate commerce, writings…for the purpose of executing” his fraudulent scheme, and that by knowingly lying under oath he committed perjury.

“Our intellectual property laws are designed to protect creative artists, not defraud them,” said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “The misuse of civil litigation as part of a fraud scheme, and lying under oath, as alleged in this case, warp our federal judicial system and must be addressed with appropriate criminal sanctions.”

For the charges of wire fraud and perjury, Gordon faces up to 25 years in prison, six years of supervised release, and fines up to $500,000 plus restitution to DreamWorks. The FBI pointed out in its press release that actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties. According to the federal indictment, DreamWorks spent approximately $1 million to defend the lawsuit, and another $2 million was spent by its insurance company.

The Boston Cybercrime Unit is famously aggressive in prosecuting alleged violations of U.S intellectual property law, most notably its controversial prosecution of software developer, Internet activist, and Reddit pioneer Aaron Swartz for wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Swartz committed suicide in 2013 after prosecutors rejected a plea bargain offer made by Swartz.

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  • I can’t call it ‘sad’, the artist really brought it on himself for these punishments. I really do understand it when an artist has been ripped off of their own work by a bigger company or any other artist…but to try and pull a stunt like this just to get paid….ridiculous.

    What I hope is that people really take it to heart to be as unique and original with their own creations, then to try and rip off someone else’s, just so you can (try to) screw them over in the future.

  • Kris Åsard

    This kind of operation is always a gamble; sometimes they will give you “go-away-money”, sometimes they will instead make you go away. To the big house.

  • Marc Hendry

    I don’t know if the 25 years are really necessary, since the fees alone are pretty much life-ruining

    • RCooke

      Why not? I mean, there was at least ONE Wall Street goon who was sent to prison for the 2008 financial meltdown(!)

    • Doconnor

      25 years is the maximum for the very worst examples of this crime. He will probably get much less.

  • EHH

    What I would like to know is why a panda in a bamboo forest was in a Lion King coloring book. Did it involve Timon and Pumbaa going around the world like the TV cartoon?

    • It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a Timon and Pumbaa coloring book given when the show started (1995), that would put the 1996 date as appropriate for any merch to be made based on it.

  • Don Abulio

    And with those masks and belly belts, he probably was ripping off the Ninja Turtles too. Ha.
    Re: EEH– Very likely, given that that red panda is totally a Timon swipe.

    • I get the impression the earlier incarnation of this was basically a Ninja Turtles wannabe (there were plenty of those in the late 80’s/early 90’s). I also see I’m not the only one to noticed the Timon swipe too! Surprising Disney didn’t come down on this too!

  • Pedro Nakama

    25 years?! I guess he can always make some cute prison tattoos.

  • Daniel Ruiz
  • Daniel Ruiz
  • John Petersen

    The moral of the story: Just create your own stuff.

  • ThreeViews

    I could see fining the guy. Community service or the like….lets face it the big guys basically rob the little guy in many cases….see the current Wage Fixing Lawsuit. However….going to the source with a lawsuit of theft with the sources own artwork, is pretty dopey.

    • Richard Blakely

      Fraud is fraud. It’s about intent.

      • Martin Cohen

        No. It’s about who gets prosecuted. See “Bankers”.

  • Richard Blakely

    I have questions regarding his person’s portrayal as a “Cartoonist”. Can anyone point to other published work to support this title?