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Hoff v. Walt Disney Pictures

District court dismisses copyright infringement claim involving Disney’s Zootopia, finding that allegedly similar elements in plaintiff’s screenplay, including world of crime-fighting animals, are too generic to warrant copyright protection.

Plaintiff Brian Neil Hoff sued Walt Disney Pictures and a number of other Disney companies for copyright infringement, breach of implied contract, unfair competition, conversion and breach of confidence, alleging that Disney’s animated blockbuster Zootopia copied certain elements from his screenplay Secret Agent 00K9. According to Hoff, he wrote Secret Agent 00K9, about crime-solving animals, in 2007, and sometime thereafter, he pitched the project and had numerous conversations with Disney, even giving Disney access to his secure website containing the screenplay and various character renderings. Disney ultimately decided not to produce Hoff’s project. After Disney’s 2016 release of Zootopia, which also involves anthropomorphic animals investigating crimes, Hoff filed his 2019 lawsuit. The district court granted Disney’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit without leave to amend.

To survive a motion to dismiss, the court noted, plaintiff’s complaint must contain factual allegations that allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. In the context of a copyright infringement claim, Hoff argued, the pleading standard is relaxed and he need not identify similarities or other factual details of the alleged infringement. The court disagreed, citing the Ninth Circuit’s 2018 decision in Rentmeester v. Nike, Inc., which held that a plaintiff must plausibly allege the substantial similarity between the two works in order to sustain a copyright infringement claim. Hoff also argued that because he alleged that Disney had access to his work, he had a lesser burden of pleading substantial similarity between Zootopia and Secret Agent 00K9. The district court again disagreed, stating that the level of access alleged has no effect on the necessary showing of substantial similarity.

Turning to the merits, the district court analyzed Disney’s contention that Hoff’s copyright infringement claim failed to show substantial similarity between the two works under the Ninth Circuit’s extrinsic test. The extrinsic test measures the objective similarities between the two works, focusing on the protectable elements of the plaintiff’s expression, including plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and the sequence of events as well as the combination and arrangement of unprotectable elements.  

Looking first at the plots of the two works, the court found that Secret Agent 00K9, about a dog who is a retired spy brought out of retirement to investigate the theft of a missing dog collar, and Zootopia, about a bunny cop who partners with a con-artist fox to find a missing animal and prevent a sheep from seizing political power, have very different plots. While both works feature anthropomorphic crime-fighting animals, the court found that those features constitute such a high-level idea that it is not subject to copyright protection. Hoff argued that there are a number of discrete vignettes and segments in the works that are substantially similar, including scenes involving dangerous chemicals, gas masks, thieves, chases, island compounds and a celebration at the end of the movie, among others. The court determined, however, that all of these elements are either unprotectable scenes-a-faire that are typical of spy films or the similarity of these elements are outweighed by their differences when considered in context with the rest of each respective work.

The court also found no substantial similarity between the characters of the two works. Rejecting Hoff’s contention that the two male leads are substantially similar because they are both canines that walk upright, wear human clothes and address human issues, the court pointed out that these characteristics are common to all anthropomorphic animals. When looking at the alleged similarity between the female villains in the two works, the court concluded that female villains who use handguns to assist more powerful male characters are unprotectable ideas that flow naturally from crime-fighting movies.

The court then looked at the settings of the two works, which Hoff argued are substantially similar because both take place in an “animal-only society with no humans” and “feature specific climatological zones.” First, the court found that the Secret Agent 00K9 screenplay, unlike Zootopia, references the existence of humans. Furthermore, the court concluded that the alleged similarities between the two settings are too generic to warrant copyright protection.  

Finding that Hoff had not shown that individual protectable elements of Secret Agent 00K9 were substantially similar to those in Zootopia, the district court held, as a matter of law, that Hoff’s copyright infringement claim must be dismissed. The court also dismissed Hoff’s breach of implied contract claim, finding that the statute of limitations had run and that the claim would fail because it relies upon a finding of substantial similarity in the two works. As for Hoff’s conversion and unfair competition claims, the district court held that those claims were preempted by the Copyright Act, as they involve the same subject matter and rights as his copyright claim. Hoff had voluntarily withdrawn his breach of confidence claim. Finding that all of Hoff’s claims failed, and that he would be unable to cure the inadequacies in his complaint, the district court granted Disney’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit without granting Hoff leave to further amend his complaint.

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Kyle Petersen