Judge Denies Disney’s Request To Dismiss ‘Muppet Babies’ Reboot Lawsuit
A U.S. district judge has ruled that original Muppet Babies writer Jeffrey Scott and his bankruptcy trustee Howard Ehrenberg may pursue their lawsuit against the company, turning down a bid by The Walt Disney Company to have the suit dismissed.
This is the second such suit filed by Scott. The first was dismissed in early 2021 without prejudice.
Scott’s First Argument: In October 2020, Scott filed a complaint against Disney claiming that he owns the production bible he created for the original show. In that filing he stated: “The Muppet Babies Production Bible created the show’s nursery setting, the child versions of the characters, the mix of entertainment and education, and the blueprint for its stories.” He also argued that in a 2016 pitch for a series reboot, he suggested ideas that were eventually used by the company in the 2018 version.
Disney’s Counter: The company argued that the idea of baby versions of the Muppet characters originally came from franchise creator Jim Henson, who used the concept in the 1983 feature The Muppets Take Manhattan. Further, they claimed that Scott could not hold the copyright to the original Muppet Babies bible, as any work he’d done at that time would have been on a work-for-hire basis.
The Original Outcome: Disney’s rebuttal ended up being unnecessary however, as records revealed that in 1995 and 2003, when Scott filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the bible was not listed among his assets, invalidating his argument. So, in April 2021, judge Blumenfeld ruled that: “Because Plaintiff has no ownership interest in the Work or its purported copyrights, Plaintiff lacks standing to pursue the present lawsuit.” Blumenfeld dismissed Scott’s claims without prejudice, leaving the writer with the option to file suit again if he managed to reclaim copyright.
What’s Changed? Scott has since reopened his 1995 and 2003 bankruptcy proceedings to include the copyright claims in the estate. Then, in February of this year with estate trustee Howard Ehrenberg representing him, Scott refiled his suit against Disney. This time around, Blumenfeld felt that Scott had met a sufficient standard to continue with his copyright claims. In his opinion published on Monday, the judge said:
Plaintiffs plausibly allege that Disney, throughout the reboot, used the same nanny character with her distinctive colored socks, who is only ever seen from the legs down, created by Scott in his production bible and scripts. Plaintiffs also plausibly allege substantial similarity between specific scripts written by Scott and specific reboot episodes. For example, they allege that the reboot episode “You Ought to Be in Pictures” copies Scott’s “The Muppet Museum of Art” script, as both involve the characters viewing impressionist artwork shown in photorealistic images, including Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” and paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. And in both episodes, the character Animal exclaims, “Renoir!”
Blumenfeld also agreed that Scott can advance with his breach of contract claims, in which Scott argues that he and Disney had entered an implied contract after the 2016 meeting in which a Muppet Babies reboot was first pitched. There, Scott argues, Disney solicited additional ideas which were used in the reboot, but for which Scott was not compensated. Disney had argued that Scott would only have been paid if he were hired on to write scripts for the reboot and not just for pitched ideas, but that claim was rejected by Blumenfeld.