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Disney Slammed With ‘Zootopia’ Theft Lawsuit by ‘Total Recall’ Screenwriter

Gary Goldman, an established screenwriter with credits that include Total Recall and Big Trouble in Little China, filed a lawsuit in federal court this week against The Walt Disney Company, alleging the studio’s 2016 hit Zootopia was based on his own project, also titled Zootopia.

Goldman (not to be confused with Don Bluth’s business partner, who is also named Gary Goldman) claims that in 2000 he wrote a treatment about “an animated cartoon world that metaphorically explores life in America through…anthropomorphic animals.” He registered the treatment with the Writer’s Guild and hired an artist to create illustrations of various characters for his project.

Goldman also pitched his Zootopia to David Hoberman, a producer and former Disney studio executive. At the time, Hoberman passed on the project.

In 2009, Goldman was working with Disney executive Brigham Taylor on a project called Blaze. By that time, Goldman had further developed his Zootopia project and pitched Taylor on his idea. Goldman gave Taylor copies of his character descriptions, illustrations, and treatment, and Taylor said he would approach the studio’s animation departments to review the project.

According to Goldman, shortly thereafter, Disney put into development its own Zootopia project, but did not compensate Goldman for any of his work.

To prove a copyright claim, a plaintiff must show ownership of the work claimed to be infringed upon, substantial similarity between the protected work and the infringing work, and that the defendant had access to the protected work. The guild registration could prove ownership, and the pitches to Hoberman and Taylor could prove access. Most copyright cases, though, hinge on whether works are “substantially similar.”

Goldman claims that both the “Goldman Zootopia” and the “Disney Zootopia” address the themes of prejudice, self-definition, and whether individual goals can be obtained in a diverse society, using the metaphor of diverse species.

Goldman's filing includes this comparison line-up of characters from his "Zootopia" pitch and Disney's "Zootopia."
Goldman’s filing includes this comparison line-up of characters from his “Zootopia” pitch and Disney’s “Zootopia.”

According to the lawsuit, both works depict a setting characterized by anthropomorphic animals in a place referred to as “Zootopia,” with each species having their own neighborhood, with the animal characters going to work in the day and coming home at night, with social class based on “the animals’ characteristics such as the nature of their species.” Both works are set in “human-like physical environments,” rather than more naturalistic settings such as the jungle or forest, and feature clubs, schools, workplaces, and asylums.

The complaint compares the various characters and alleges similarities in the designs and personalities. Goldman also argues that both plots “involve a small, cute, furry female animal who is an outsider,” and that conflicts among characters are similar, as are the sequence of events, the mood and pace, and of course the title.

However, there are differences as well. For example, in Goldman’s Zootopia, the anthropomorphic cartoon animal world is created by a human animator. Goldman’s Zootopia does not have a rabbit as its main star; the lawsuit compares Judy in Disney’s version to a squirrel in Goldman’s version, but there is no indication of what role that squirrel plays in the story. And though Goldman says that he came up with Zootopia and describes it as a Zootopia franchise, the actual name of his film was Looney.

In the complaint, Goldman alleges that Disney has a “corporate practice” of appropriating the intellectual property of others without authorization, and citing alleged copy by The Lion King of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Kimba the White Lion (the Kimba rights holders declined to pursue any claim); by Pixar’s Toy Story of Jim Henson’s The Christmas Toy; by Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. of Stanley Mouse’s Wise G’Eye (Mouse sued Disney in 2002 claiming infringement); by Pixar’s Up of Yannick Banchereau’s Above Then Beyond; by Pixar’s Inside Out of Frédéric Mayer’s and Cédric Jeanne’s Cortex Academy, and, as covered by Cartoon Brew previously, by the Frozen trailer of Kelly Wilson’s animated short film, The Snowman (Disney settled with Wilson).

The complaint even quotes Zootopia director Byron Howard: “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.”

In a statement, as reported by multiple outlets, Disney denied Goldman’s “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 Disney spokesperson said.

Goldman is seeking an accounting of all profits derived from Zootopia and unspecified damages, including punitive, as a result of what he calls Disney’s “wanton, deliberate, malicious, and willful misconduct.”

  • About Gary Goldman

    Funny you should say ‘not to be confused with Don Bluth’s business partner,’ because as of March 23rd, 2017, Rotten Tomatoes does just that! :D

  • Marc Hendry

    This is slightly more credible than the Kung fu Panda guy, but I never really believe these claims that Disney are “ripping off” other stuff. They employ hundreds of creative people, so why would they risk ripping anything off?
    To some extent I can imagine the impending release of the Thief and the Cobbler might have spurred Disney to get Aladdin out first (maybe fearing Richard Williams would become another competitor like Bluth at the time) but that’s just conspiracy, really

    • Jesse

      Disney, the company that bases most of its films off of public domain fairy tales like The Snow Queen or Rapunzel? I love the quality of Disney’s films, but it’s not too much of a stretch to think that they’ve used ideas from creators other than their own.

      • jak

        The films you mention definitely stray far enough from the source material to be considered original stories, even if based on familiar works.

    • Netko

      You’re talking about a company that tried to copyright a Mexican holiday.

    • raptornx01

      common idea based on common themes pop up independently of one another all the time. look at every case of dueling films (volcano/dante’s peak, etc). the stories never actually copied one another. they were written and pitched independently without knowledge of the other. its just one would start getting worked on then the other would get fast tracked to compete.

      the lion king thing was similar. both that and kimba were based on hamlet. but the similarities were incredibly slim. even the so called proof with the main character name. Simba is actually Swahili for lion, plus, kimba wasn’t named kimba, he was leo. kimba was the american name.

      • Marc Hendry

        I’m on the same page as you about the “rip off” allegations. However I think they might have been considering a few different ideas at the time, but decided on Aladdin when Richard Williams turned down Beauty and the Beast to do the Thief. (Pure speculation)

  • Chicken McPhee

    It wouldn’t be the first, ask Kimbo.

  • Ryan Barrett

    I was just going to mention the Lion King comparison and how Disney never comes up with its own ideas. Even Toy Story is really just a re-imagining of Brave Little Toaster, but with toys instead of common household objects that come to life. (Toys produce more merch opportunities) The animated Brave Little Toaster was made by the Pixar execs, so I guess it gets a pass….

    • It was only far Disney got to distribute BLT locally regardless of having turned down the idea previous.

  • Did Goldman give a reason why he waited to file it now? (Asking because I’m curious of waiting after the movie was launched and the successes).

  • Elsi Pote

    Good companies copy, great companies steal (I’m claiming this phrase through my own perspective).

    Now you have to honor the house that Walt built for their ability to take from others creations, make a big profit and still be able to pay for any liabilities without falling into the red.

    Iger, the Katz and Eisner will go down in history as business geniuses (maybe unethical) but still geniuses.

  • FM Hansen

    Zootopia was a wonderful movie, but the overall idea and themes weren’t that original, which could be what kills this lawsuit. Although I’m sure Mr. Goldman and his lawyer will walk away with some undisclosed amount.

    • Mermaid Warrior

      “Zootopia was a wonderful movie, but the overall idea and themes weren’t that original, which could be what kills this lawsuit.”

      That’s what I’m thinking. Animals living like humans is far from new, and it’s common for stories to use worlds with talking animals (or aliens or fantasy species) to explore themes of discrimination.

      • Josh Evans

        The clincher for me was the use of the actual term “zootopia” in both productions which is, to my understanding, pretty unique.

      • There is an entire fandom of people obsessed with the concept that has been around since the late 80s (Furry) and that came out of the underground comic scene of the 70s that was into the same themes.

        The character designs he shows could have been taken from any furry sketch book from the past 30 years.

        Hell, Didn’t Fritz the Cat explore racism though anthro animals? What about Maus?

        • Yes, comics such Fritz and Maus often explored themes like racism, violence, sex and other foibles through the use of animals placed in human roles. Often this could be done either as parody such as Fritz’s style resembling the “Funny Animal” comics of decades past or in the case of Maus, using species as analogs for different classes of people contained in the events. I’m sure it varied from author to author in how they viewed the use of anthro characters in their work. The Underground movement certainly ignited certain niche interests in imploying animals beyond their fables, literature and cartoons to present them in more adult, mature ways.

  • Andres Molina

    Okay, here is my take on this. First, Gary Goldman, the writer who is accusing Disney is stealing the idea of Zootopia, decided to file a lawsuit, not during the film’s production, not during the first trailer’s release, but right after Zootopia was released won an Oscar. Something seems very fishy here.

    Lets make up an example and say I am an animator who pitched an idea to a film studio, and they green light the project. 2-3 years later, my project is well into production, then I find out that another studio is working on a film that is also in production, and it highly resembles the film i’m currently working on. I would immediately go to the studio make the other film to discuss the film. I would be okay at first, because sometimes, there would be multiple films that highly resemble each other. But, then I find out they actually flat out stole my ideas, I would’ve filed a lawsuit right when I find out they were stealing my ideas, right when the ripoff was fresh in production, not after the film was released, because then it would be too late. If Goldman’s ideas really were stolen, and this isn’t a false made up claim, it would’ve been much smarter too sue Disney, while Zootopia was in production, not after it was released.

    Second, when Zootopia was pitched, it started as an international action/spy film, and it doesn’t feature the human animator aspect of Goldman’s supposed pitch. I’m personally and honestly not sure if Goldman is right, but simply put, if Disney really did steal Goldman’s ideas, there would’ve been a lawsuit years ago, not after the film’s Oscar win, where it would’ve been too late.

    • Tim Berton

      Perhaps there were private negotiations that failed before the lawsuit was filed. Perhaps the deadline to file a lawsuit just happened to be after the Oscars.

      It does seem like he has a case based on the many similarities. Disney will likely settle to avoid a trial.

    • Jesse

      No, you have to wait until the infringing product is done and released so the attorneys can then compare the finished product with your material. Things change during production so filing a suit too early might be a waste of time. Lawyers aren’t going to take a case with too many variables. Also, they do want to determine a fair amount of damages/compensation. That’s how it was explained to me and it makes sense.

    • hamilton geyser

      The timing isn’t relevant except to maximize damages. It has no bearing on the validity of the suit.

    • Fred Hagemeister

      It makes sense one would want to wait until the movie succeeds. If it failed, then you’re just the guy to sue someone based on your IP that probably would have failed. There would be little in the way of damages leaving punitive which is usually a fraction of damages.

      Of course if I stole an idea, I’d continue to evolve the project into a final state that tests well with reviewers. If the work was registered as purported, it should answer it simply. No one would take more than a decade and a half to develop a movie.

  • Troy

    Plausible reasons, but I have to ask why that guy did it at the last minute? How complicated does it take to be this long to file a lawsuit? Granted it can go under the closed doors production, but Disney paraded that movie trailer like there’s no tomorrow. Personally I would like to hear if there are other testimonies like did he pitch his idea to other studios, why the artist that he commission didn’t sue Disney, and what exactly is the writer’s guild doing? You would think SOMEONE would notice. I don’t know what mindset these people are trying to aim, but attempting to sue at maximum profit is a surefire way of losing the bet big time as we saw with the Kung Fu Panda incident.

    • Sharkey Shyster

      Because if you’ve ever worked on an animated feature you’d know it’s still being written, boarded and changed when those trailers are released. It’s best to base the lawsuit on the finished product.
      Face the fact.. this is America and litigation is the new American Dream. Let him have his day in court.

      • Troy

        There is a difference between having a lawsuit due to stolen ideas being mutilated to fit a company’s vision vs fabricating last minute details to make a quick buck. Whether the concept changed over time has no relevance to the person who will have no problem claiming that a company threw out “original concepts” without documentation. Though I wouldn’t stop the person from trying if they think they can cheat the system.

    • HalSolo

      Also, there’s usually a statute of limitations on these lawsuits, so it’s sometimes best to push as late into that as possible when something is successful to make the largest financial claims against a property. Since ZOOTOPIA has been raking it in through theatrical and home entertainment, Goldman can now state he is entitled to a portion of all that profit vs. speculating if he’d brought the suit to court before the film opened.

  • Mermaid Warrior

    Not enough info for me to really make a judgement. It’s possible that Disney ripped him off, but a lot of the ideas he’s claiming were stolen are ones that aren’t terribly original. I mean, lots and lots of fictional works feature animals living like humans, and there’s no shortage of stories using such settings to explore themes of discrimination.

    • That is something to keep in mind in all this. The notion of animals as humans in storytelling has been done for ages.

      • Dusty Ayres

        And (for me anyway), it’s becoming tiresome, which is why I usually try to avoid these movies in favor of ones about human beings instead.

        • I still like animals more in these sorts of stories.

          • Mermaid Warrior

            This is why it’s very popular to use things like animals for stories about discrimination. With animals, you don’t have the same baggage that comes with real life groups. Zootopia was not a subtle movie, but it still managed to avoid controversy even though it’s about a racist cop.

            Part of what made Zootopia work so well wasn’t just that it used animals, but that the animals weren’t direct stand-ins for real life groups. The predators didn’t act like stereotypical racial minorities, the rabbits didn’t act like stereotypical women, and so on. Zootopia is its own world, similar to our own but also quite different. By creating a new world instead of just replacing one group with wolves, another with rabbits, and another with elephants, the viewer is forced to think about the themes of the film and the implications of the world. When you have a more realistic movie about a white person being racist against a black person, or even if you replaced the white person with a rabbit and the black person with a fox and changed nothing else, the viewer is less likely to think because s/he already has preconceived notions about the situation, already thinks s/he knows how the world works.

          • You hit the nail on the head here with how well the film carefully did that. Crafting a world that is its own place, and the themes and concepts that are slightly relatable to ours is a challenge for any writer to scribe. The ‘casual racism’ exude by Judy was certainly a small part of that world picture, but certainly one she learned to overcome through the experience.

          • Dusty Ayres
          • Already read that last year, didn’t really change my mind.

          • Gator Claw

            [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

      • Mermaid Warrior

        Yeah, him mentioning that as a similarity kind of threw me off. I was thinking “… But lots of stories do that”. Off the top of my head with recent movies doing that, you have Sing and Kung Fu Panda.

        • Not to mention the barely forgotten Rock Dog, which I thought wasn’t a bad film at all.

  • Draško Ivezić

    Pardon my English, but what does “the anthropomorphic cartoon animal world is created by a human animator” mean? As oppose to Disney’s film where the world is created by who? (robots?) Maybe I am missing something here.

    • AmidAmidi

      Goldman’s film idea, Looney, was about a human animator who creates a cartoon animal world called Zootopia, so there would be a human actor in the film portraying an animator. Maybe there’s a way we could re-phrase that part to make it more clear.

      • Draško Ivezić

        Ok, now it is clear :)

      • mashed potato

        That sounds like Toonstruck, the point-and-click game. Creator enters his own creation.

      • HalSolo

        It sounds like this idea was more COOL WORLD than anything else.

        • I was thinking Cool World or Roger Rabbit with this concept. If course in both films, the cartoon world was its own real entity or universe. Certainly different from the route Disney took here.

        • raptornx01

          Sounds more like the lego movie.

  • Edgar Torné

    Disney and Pixar ran out of ideas some time ago. Even Monsters University has the same story as Ratatouille.

  • Chris Webb

    Goldman’s mistake is to seek “an accounting of all profits derived from Zootopia.”
    But everyone knows Hollywood studios never make a profit!

    How do we know this?

    Writer Art Buchwald learned that in his case against Paramount Studios in 1988. Buchwald had written an original story that became the Eddie Murphy movie “Coming To America.” Buchwald wanted some of the profits.


    Paramount claimed, and provided accounting evidence to support the claim, that despite the movie’s $288 million in revenues, it had earned no net profit, according to the definition of “net profit” in Buchwald’s contract. Hence Buchwald was owed nothing.

    The court agreed with Buchwald’s argument that this was “unconscionable” and therefore invalid.

    Good luck, Gary!

    Souce: Wikipedia

  • Joe Blow

    Apparently Goldman copyrighted his idea and characters in 2017:

    • Be interesting to see if that holds up in court.

    • Brian Gabriel

      Goldman had a copyright in his work the moment he put pen to paper (well, probably more like, finger to keyboard to CPU). But by registering his work with the Copyright Office, he is able to seek statutory damages, which make it easier — and cheaper — to recover damages.

      • Copyright by itself is often very easy to own. but also very easily misunderstood by others.

  • Pper79

    He pitched something titled Zootopia TWICE, Disney later makes a film titled Zootopia with similar characters etc. That alone should be enough to convince a judge.

  • Jocelyn Strob Simard

    I think Disney made a couple of movies with animals before. There was one named Mikou Meyce or something like that…

  • ea

    I was thinking of a similar idea about a year before Zootopia was announced. Only it involved humans as well, and it had more socio-political and religious elements. Basically, what if animals in real-life suddenly evolved anthropomorphically? How would humans react? How would life and culture change? Etc.

    • That idea alone was something I’ve had for some time as well. That alone would make for an interesting story to tell, perhaps as a graphic novel or sorts. I’m sure others had contemplated such a world like that as well. What sort of interactions, conflicts or peace could be craved out of such a history that could take place if man was not the only sentient being on the planet.

      • Axolotl

        There’s Duncan the Wonder Dog
        I had some issues with it but it’s interesting throughout and has a great terrorist monkey.

  • jak

    Yes, I am aware of that. The post was accusing Disney of commonly plagiarizing stories, but even their fairy tale films have unique twists. Obviously the original stories are public domain.

  • Sara Bersani

    I let the music speak on my behalf

  • Bramagola

    SO? Be a professional, and don’t pitch your ideas, no matter how awesome or amazing the person, place or time, without a contract? Thanks for reminding the rest of us.

    • It’s always best to have it in writing.

    • Yeah, this pretty much reeks of “he said, she said” to me. Has he even presented proof that the sketches are his? The art style is pretty typical of furry artists, which means you can’t even pinpoint the artist based on the style of the illustrations. All this says is he “hired an artist”, which says absolutely nothing. This reminds me of the Kung Fu Panda incident.

  • Zeriel

    As an artist I’m sure Disney takes advantage of the little guy but also you can’t patent an idea. The idea of walking talking animals on a real world environment is not new and Disney took care not to copy any characters directly except maybe the Sloth, but even then all Sloths look the same. They also copied their personalities but you can’t patent that either.

    It sucks but I think the artist has no grounds here.

  • leojay

    The art book Disney issued, as well as other documentary materials, show that Zootopia started off as a spy parody (the name “Nick Wilde” is the only real holdover from that version). It wasn’t until a few years along that the social commentary version came to light, and that was the “ZooDystopia” version with the shock collars and murder plot that failed with test audiences.

    Unless someone remembered this pitch into 2011 or 2012, which I doubt, it likely had very little to do with the final film. The concept art connections seem tenuous at best; without an explanation of characterization there’s no way to prove similarity.

    I have a feeling this will go as well for Mr. Goldman as the suit against Harry Potter did, or the one against The Terminator by Ellison. (Taking bets now that Disney offers a settlement and Mr. Goldman declines.)