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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Esplanade Productions, Inc. v. The Walt Disney Company

Ninth Circuit affirms dismissal of copyright claim by producer and writer Gary Goldman alleging Disney animated film Zootopia infringed materials for his contemplated “Zootopia” franchise, ruling that parties’ works are not substantially similar as matter of law.

Esplanade Productions Inc., the production company owned by Gary L. Goldman, a writer, director and producer, brought copyright infringement and state law claims against The Walt Disney Co. and others involved in the production of Disney’s animated box-office hit Zootopia. Goldman alleged that the movie infringed copyrights he held in a synopsis and treatment for his movie Looney, which was part of a proposed franchise he also called “Zootopia.” 

The district court twice dismissed Esplanade’s copyright infringement claims, first ruling that plaintiff’s failure to attach the works he claimed had been infringed to the complaint or to describe them in sufficient detail made it impossible for the court to determine substantial similarity, but granting leave to replead to cure these defects (read our summary of the district court’s opinion here). In its second ruling, the district court subsequently held that Disney’s Zootopia was not substantially similar to Goldman’s treatment, synopsis, character descriptions and illustrations for his contemplated Zootopia franchise (read our summary of the district court’s opinion here). 

On plaintiff’s appeal, the Ninth Circuit considered the copyright infringement issues de novo and affirmed the district court’s dismissal, finding that the works were not substantially similar. 

To establish copyright infringement, plaintiff must establish, among other things, unlawful appropriation of protected expression, which requires courts to first consider whether the two works are substantially similar under the Ninth’s Circuit’s extrinsic test. Under this test, the court must filter out any unprotectable elements of the plaintiff’s work, including ideas and concepts, material in the public, domain and scènes à faire, and assess the objective similarities between the works, focusing only on the protectable elements of the plaintiff’s expression. The court explained that the original selection, coordination and arrangement of otherwise unprotectable elements may also be considered protectable expression. 

Applying this test, the Ninth Circuit held that the works are not substantially similar as a matter of law and that no discovery or expert testimony could show that the works are similar. The panel found little similarity between the works in protectable elements like the “plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events,” and the “selection, combination, and arrangement of unprotectable elements.” The identical title and a single common line of dialogue about becoming an elephant were insufficient to constitute protected expression. The court further held that the remaining similarities were common to many works or were too general to warrant copyright protection. 

Summary prepared by Wook Hwang and Ava Badiee