Sweet Cicely Daniher, a Bay Area artist, is suing the Walt Disney Company, Pixar, and Onward producer Kori Rae. She alleges that Pixar stole her unicorn van idea (pictured top left) for its next film, Onward (top right).

Here are the lawsuit details from The Hollywood Reporter and Daniher’s legal complaint:

  • Daniher’s lawyers says that she “has had a real thing for unicorns, for a very long time, and they have been a central theme and subject matter of her artistic work, throughout the entirety of her career.” In 2014, she acquired a 1972 Chevrolet G10 van on which she painted a unicorn mural.
  • She had the “Vanicorn” mural painted on her vehicle not only because she likes unicorns, but also because her ex-husband had previously forbidden her to do so. According to Daniher, putting a unicorn on her van was “a redemptive and validating act of recovery from toxic masculinity and her former marriage.”
  • Daniher says that Pixar asked to rent her vehicle for an event in September 2018. According to her complaint, Pixar production manager Jane Clausen originally reached out to her with this email:

    Sweet Cicely,
    We just stumbled upon a badass photo of you and your amazing van in San Francisco Mag and shrieked with joy…I’m working on an event over here at Pixar Animation Studio next week, and was wondering if you’d be willing to rent us your Vanicorn for a couple of days. I have no idea if you get inquiries like this ever, but it is incredibly perfect for the theme of the event we’re working with – kind of a fantasy/rocker sort of thing.

    Would you let me know if you’re open to this? Of course, it would be in good hands – we would make it worth your while, take exquisite care of it and provide alternate transportation for you.

  • Daniher rented the van to Pixar for a few days. After she learned about the film and its imagery of a similar van, she complained about it online. Then, she claims on her Instagram that Pixar producer Kori Rae called to apologize to her:

    Well, SHIT! The producer of “Onward” [Kori Rae] just called me. She wanted to know HOW I’M FEELING…(?!) and to apologize…. she also wanted to tell me that they rented my van without disclosing their full intentions, or plans, and she’s sorry for that too. #disney #pixar just tried to smooth things over with a phone call, instead of putting their art dept to work, or asking.

  • Daniher’s lawyers Jared Weinstock and J. Conor Corcoran say that Disney has denigrated Daniher’s original artistic statement:

    “[Pixar’s] use of the Vanicorn as Guinevere is an intentional and/or grossly negligent destruction of the Vanicorn, because [Pixar]’s use of the Vanicorn as Guinevere denigrates this Plaintiff’s highly personal and public transubstantiation of her lifelong artistic interest in unicorns into the Vanicorn (a uniquely San Franciscan work of public, mobile, automotive art, and a redemptive and validating act of recovery from toxic masculinity and a former marriage) and which has, instead, been pilfered by the Defendants as a commercial and corporate conduit for the aspirations of a pair of blue boy elves looking for their father in a mass marketed Disney film, and was accomplished by the Defendants under wickedly misleading pretenses…”

  • Daniher is suing for a whole variety of things, including copyright infringement, and violations of the Visual Artists Rights Act, California Artists Protection Act, and Digital Millennium Copyright Act. She is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, and asking the court for an injunction that would prevent Disney from releasing the film theatrically.

We see these type of infringement cases at least once or twice a year, where non-industry artists sue studios for infringement based on a tenuous link between their work and a studio’s film. Like most of these cases, Daniher’s complaint is weak.

That’s a personal opinion, but one that’s informed by having served as an expert witness for major animation studios on a number of infringement cases and having seen these cases play out up close. To win a case, Daniher would have to prove the standard of substantial similarity, something that she would have a lot of difficulty doing with the materials being presented.

While it’s certainly true that there’s a unicorn on her van and a unicorn-esque creature on the van that appears in Pixar’s Onward, both Daniher and Pixar are drawing from the previously established lexicon of fantasy art. One could find hundreds (if not thousands) of images of similar unicorn fantasy motifs, and quite a few of these images also ended up on vans in the 1980s. Even the dark purple color scheme is not original — for Pixar, that’s deliberate because it’s a callback to all of the familiar iconography that has existed long before Daniher’s van.

There’s also the slight issue that Pixar’s character isn’t even a unicorn, but more of an alicorn/pegasus. But I guess when you’re all fired up about suing Disney and Pixar, minor details like that could be overlooked.

How strong do you think Daniher’s case is?

Update (1/30/20, 6:20pm ET): Eagle-eyed Cartoon Brew readers on our Facebook page have pointed out that the unicorn that appears on Daniher’s van is based on someone else’s artwork. One reader found this 2014 Instagram post by Daniher that shows an airbrush artist painting her van with two reference images (both of the same painting) taped to the van.

Screenshot from Sweet Cicely Daniher's Instagram page.
Screenshot from Sweet Cicely Daniher’s Instagram page.

The airbrush artist in that photo is referencing the painting “Moonlight Magic” by Sharlene Lindskog-Osorio, and the image that appears on Daniher’s van closely resembles Lindskog-Osorio’s work:

"Moonlight Magic" by Sharlene Lindskog-Osorio.
“Moonlight Magic” by Sharlene Lindskog-Osorio.

A judge will have to decide how this information impacts Daniher’s claims of copyright infringement by Pixar.

Amid Amidi

Amid Amidi is Cartoon Brew's Publisher and Editor-at-large.