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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Abdullah v. Walt Disney Co.

District court grants motion to dismiss children’s author’s copyright infringement lawsuit, holding that defendant Walt Disney’s animated film “Frozen” is not substantially similar to plaintiff’s copyrighted children’s story “The Snow Princess.”

Children’s author Muneefa Abdullah sued Walt Disney Co. and others involved in the production and distribution of the 2013 blockbuster animated film “Frozen,” alleging that the film infringed her copyright in her children’s story “The Snow Princess.” In addition to Walt Disney Co., plaintiff named Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group Inc., Disney Enterprise Inc., Jennifer Lee, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc. as defendants.  

Abdullah argued that defendants had access to “The Snow Princess” because (1) the book she authored titled “New Fairy Tales,” which contains “The Snow Princess,” has been available for sale worldwide since 2007 and (2) Lee, the screenwriter and co-producer for “Frozen,” had a reasonable opportunity to access “The Snow Princess” before writing “Frozen” since she previously worked at Random House Publishing, whose predecessor-in-interest had released “New Fairy Tales.” Abdullah also alleged a list of 17 similarities between “The Snow Princess” and “Frozen” that purported to show similarities in plot, sequence of events, characters, themes, setting, mood, pace and dialogue.  

The district court deferred ruling on whether the defendants had access to “The Snow Princess,” although it did note that Abdullah’s two theories of access were not plausible as currently pled. Instead, the district court focused solely on whether plaintiff’s work was substantially similar to “Frozen.”

First, the district court analyzed each of Abdullah’s 17 alleged similarities and concluded that the two works are similar only at the highest level of generality and are not substantially similar as a matter of law. “The Snow Princess” is a short story about an evil mountain witch who abducts a princess, and two princes who rescue the princess. “Frozen,” on the other hand, is a full-length movie about a princess who learns to control her powers through self-acceptance and love, and is a celebration of sisterly devotion, noted the district court. “No reasonable jury could conclude that there are substantial similarities in the plot, sequence of events, characters, mood, pace, setting, theme, or dialogue” between the two works.  

The district court held that the alleged similarities amounted only to mischaracterizations of the works, or “scenes a faire” to fairy tales — i.e., “elements naturally associated with fairy tales such as princes, princesses, castles, magical powers, love, betrayal, and a protagonist who seeks to conceal a characteristic from the public.” In fact, the district court noted that both works depicted clear influences by and similarities to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic 1845 fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” which is a fairy tale filled with trolls, magic, a wintry setting and the power of love over evil.

The district court also considered whether there are any additional similarities between the two works — such as characters that bear resemblance to each other, or similarities in pace or dialogue — that do not stem from the generic idea of a fairy tale set in winter. Finding none, the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Abdullah’s complaint with prejudice.

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