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Federal Court Sides With Disney, Dismisses ‘Zootopia’ Theft Lawsuit

As reported previously by Cartoon Brew, in March, screenwriter Gary Goldman (whose credits include Total Recall and Big Trouble in Little China), sued The Walt Disney Company in federal court, claiming that Disney’s smash 2016 hit, Zootopia infringed the copyright in his own work, titled Looney.

After Disney answered Goldman’s complaint denying all allegations, and after a hearing before Judge Michael Fitzgerald, the Court last week ordered Goldman’s suit to be dismissed, finding that Goldman failed to support his allegations with sufficient facts. The Court will allow Goldman the chance to amend his lawsuit by including additional supporting facts, so there remains a chance the suit can be revived.

Goldman alleges that in 2000, he registered with the Writers Guild of America a work he titled Looney, about an animator and his fantasy cartoon world creation called “Zootopia,” where anthropomorphic animals reigned. In 2009, he pitched his project to Disney executive Brigham Taylor, who promised to bring his materials, including character descriptions and illustrations, to the Disney animation department. Goldman claims that shortly thereafter, Disney put into development their own Zootopia project, basing materials on Goldman’s own project.

To prove copyright infringement, Goldman must prove there was “substantial similarity” between Looney and Zootopia. Goldman attempted to do this with allegations that both works feature “similar conflicts among the characters…about whether one can be what he or she wants to be…,” with “two contrasting protagonists” that team up and “contend with prejudice and preconceived notions of the elite, including a power structure headed by those whose species were dominant in a state of nature.” Goldman included in his complaint side-by-side illustrations of his characters with the Disney characters.

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

But in his order, Judge Fitzgerald – appointed by President Obama in 2012 and the first openly LGBT person on the federal bench in California – wrote that Goldman’s descriptions of his characters and story were too general, that it was difficult to discern the plot of Looney, and that Goldman failed to include either his screenplay, a treatment, or even a synopsis of his work for the court to compare to Zootopia.

“This action,” Judge Fitzgerald wrote, “presents the unusual question of whether a plaintiff can plead substantial similarity between two works without…actually attaching the allegedly infringed work for the Court’s review.” Without these materials, the Court could not determine whether there was substantial similarity between Goldman’s work and Disney’s hit.

“The details of the plot, dialogue, setting, and so on, are pled at such a high level of generality that arguably they consist only of non-protectable concepts and themes,” added Fitzgerald. In copyright law, elements common to any genre or type of work, such as “buddy cops” or “odd couple” pairings, are known as “scénes á faire,” that is, elements that are almost obligatory in certain types of work and so are not protected by copyright.

Perhaps ironically for a complaint filed by a highly-paid and established professional storyteller like Goldman, Judge Fitzgerald found it “impossible to get more than the most general sense of Looney’s plot from the Complaint, because the story arc itself is never” made clear. Instead, it is left “for the Court to infer details of the plot from a list of purported similarities.”

Worse, some of the “factual” details alleged in the Complaint are wrong. For example, the Complaint alleged a story arc shared by both Looney and Zootopia where the hero loses a dream job following a job crisis. But Zootopia’s Judy character, according to Judge Fitzgerald, “does not ‘lose’ her dream job, she voluntarily resigns at the height of her success.” Fitzgerald also characterized the comparison between both works’ climaxes as “strained,” and that the Complaint “misstates” the sequence of events in Zootopia.

Nor did the Court find the comparison of the character illustrations persuasive, noting that “none of the above pairings actually include the same animals… Additionally, the Looney characters are unclothed while the Zootopia characters are all elaborately costumed.” Fitzgerald thought the Disney characters “cute and appealing…clean, healthy. And well-built,” whereas the Looney characters were “darker, seedier,” with “slovenly physiques, poor posture, and circles under their eyes.”

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the failure to include any clear summary of Looney’s “plot, dialogue, themes, and so on indicates, on some level, that [Goldman] believed including those details would have been detrimental to [his] claims.” The Court offered Goldman a chance to revise his Complaint to address these shortcomings.

Goldman has until August 3, 2017 to amend his Complaint.

  • LeeFW

    I can certainly see similarities and as someone who has genuinely being ripped off in the past (luckily the project was pulled before we went full on legal!) I am sympathetic but to be honest there’s always gonna be similarities in anthropomorphic animals when that animals defining characteristic is brought to the fore. The amount of times I’ve drawn something thinking I’m so witty and original only to see something very similar the moment it’s finished is inevitably high, so while yes I am sympathetic because it’s a bummer when something that shares elements is released it’s just sometimes a case of who gets there first.

  • Marc Hendry

    I’ve got to say I laughed a little bit when the judge started critiquing the character designs

    • I’m glad to see the judge was able to discern that fact very well. Of course had the “Looney” animals wore clothes, Goldman might have had a chance!

  • Ryan Barrett

    As an artist I look at those comparison concepts and I think those are so identical how could you possibly even compare the two and not see that it was completely lifted. A judge is not an artist though. they don’t think about things through an artist lens, they think about things in legal terms. At the end of the day, you can’t f*** with Disney.

    • I really hope that’s sarcasm.

    • Isaac Babcock

      LMAO! I’m sorry, but Goldman’s case was a blatant cash-grab, nothing more, nothing less.

  • Capital_7

    Go Disney. Score one for the little guy.

  • Elsi Pote

    This is the point where Gary should try everything.. .

  • crossie

    I love that the Judge apparently spends the entire statement throwing shade at Goldman.

  • Céu D’Ellia

    The way the judge evaluated the design is pretty amateur. For honest professionals, with no fear of Disney, the similarity is quite obvious.

    • Seriously? The comparisons on those model sheets are fairly lame and there are many furry/funny animal comics I could claim Mr Goldman was ripping off.

      • Céu D’Ellia

        Yes, seriously. It’s about the personality of the character, what kind of role it will have in the story. It’s not about what kind of line or shape stereotype. We are dealing with the story concept that will guide the development and direction, not the final design for production.
        I feel some contempt for my comment, in the way you write: “Seriously?” Am I feeling wrong?

  • Valjean

    Just once I’d like to see one of these lawsuits succeed, just so Disney could finally get their comeuppance for ripping off Kimba the White Lion (yes, I know the Tezuka estate has never been interested in taking the similarities to court, but still).

    • RCooke

      I kept hearing this claim when the Lion King came out–so I tried to watch this kimba cartoon. Didn’t see much similarity at all. Certainly not with the story in any way. And as far as the character designs go–very little aside from the fact that both used animals on the African savannahs. Compositionally, there are some similarities, but then again kimba wasn’t exactly original from that point of view, either! As far as an overall movie experience, Lion King–while not my favorite cartoon–has it beat by miles.

    • GW

      This isn’t quite what you’re looking for but Sophia Stewart has a lawsuit against The Matrix and The Terminator for stealing her ideas, from her story and movie proposal of The Third Eye. After reading some of her book and comparing it to The Matrix it seems legitimate. Unfortunately, the media is trying to sweep it under the rug. They won’t mention that her lawyers didn’t show up for her first lawsuit and that she successfully sued them in a Utah federal court. Some pages with the information on her site are now missing. Something funny’s going on but I’m not quite sure what.

  • Troy

    “for the Court to infer details of the plot from a list of purported similarities.”
    So wait, based on this article, the court found the plot to be general and if that is the case… the characters are general. Is this implying that he is seriously expecting the court to figure out how it is connected to Disney when he was the one filing a complaint?

    “Court concluded that the failure to include any clear summary of Looney’s…”
    Uh isn’t that suppose the important piece of evidence?! Why wasn’t that added?!?

    • ランダム アニメーター

      Because Goldman’s ‘Looney’ plot was clearly nothing like Disney’s ‘Zootopia’ plot.

      • Troy

        I figured that was the case since the lawsuit basically hinges on the fact of how similar it is to Zootopia. But you would think that if you’re claiming theft you would have have the important evidence to back the claim.

  • I was going to say something about how Goldmans art there is kinda generic and derivative of stuff that has come before in anthropomorphics and without really details character descriptions and a real script this lawsuit seems a bit of a cash grab.

    But I forgot where I was so: Man, just another judge in the pocket of the Mouse. Man better not screw with Disney I guess.

  • 9TheMiddleMan9

    I truly do not understand this comment section. The only similarity between Goldman’s and Zootopia’s characters are that some are the same species, and some have similar builds. Some of then don’t even have that!!! I challenge anyone to tell me they honestly believe that Yax, Judy, and Gazelle are similar to their Goldman counterparts in any way.

    I don’t give a crap if you think Zootopia deserved to sweep awards season, don’t fixate on weak connections in a plagiarism lawsuit to justify further hatred towards the movie.

    • It’s hard to tell whether people are showing sarcasm or not in comments like these. I would think given what we know. Goldman clearly didn’t hand over all the materials necessary for his case to be examined (if there is a script or outline available).

    • Exilov

      >this comment section

      Wait… looking through the comments it seems as though most people here are siding with Disney….

  • Matthew Gauer
  • M_thibbs

    In the court documents it says Goldman didn’t register for a copyright of these characters in connection with a property named “Zootopia” until Feb 2017, after the movie came up. Feels like if his case was strong enough he wouldn’t need to do that after the fact? Maybe that’s why the judge was so skeptical.

    • Nena

      While you automatically hold copyright ownership of your work when you create it, you are required to register for a copyright to sue for infringement. As long as you can prove the work was created when you say it was and that you own the rights to the work, it doesn’t technically matter when your register it. Most individuals don’t register everything they create, because it would be expensive and time consuming.

  • Khalil Vennie

    Another hole in it was the fact that Zootopia as it is now wasn’t even Disney’s first version of it. It was a Spy movie at one point. They even went into production on a more dystopian version!