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Rearden LLC v. TWDC Enterprises 18 Corp.

District court grants movie studios’ motion to dismiss visual effects company’s copyright claims over use of 3D modeling software, finding that software output files are not protectable expression and finding insufficient evidence that software was actually used to create works at issue.

Plaintiff visual effects company Rearden LLC sued Disney and several of its subsidiaries, including Marvel Studios LLC and Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC, for copyright infringement and patent infringement. A prior court order found that Rearden owns the MOVA technology that is used to animate movie characters via 3D modeling of people’s faces and that Digital Domain 3.0 Inc. (DD3) (founded by an ex-Rearden employee) was prohibited from using MOVA. Disney had subcontracted with DD3 to model actor Josh Brolin’s face to create the iconic film character Thanos in the films Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Rearden alleged that, in violation of the prior court order prohibiting DD3 from using MOVA, Disney and DD3 had used MOVA to create Thanos. 

As to the copyright infringement claim, the court recognized that, to assert secondary copyright infringement against Disney, Rearden had to show direct infringement by DD3. Rearden alleged that DD3 used MOVA output files to animate Thanos. The court found, however, that the MOVA output files did not amount to copyrightable expression. Rearden itself acknowledged that the directors’ contribution “is substantial and performs the lion’s share of the creativity in the facial motion capture, and that consequently the directors are the authors of the results of the facial motion capture.”

Further, the court found that Rearden did not set forth sufficient facts about the files to show that DD3 actually used MOVA to create the output files. The court acknowledged that DD3’s spreadsheet contained “a limited number of folder and file-path names and internal messages that contain the word ‘MOVA.’” The spreadsheets did not include “basic information like spreadsheet titles or data fields, or allege any facts about the underlying files.” At best, the court could see that the file paths, but not the files themselves, indicated that DD3 used MOVA. But it found this to be insufficient to support a reasonable inference that DD3 used MOVA for facial captures. 

Rearden further argued that, based on its own knowledge of how MOVA works, the court should infer that DD3 must have created the files using MOVA. Rearden did not provide this knowledge to the court, however, and the court was left to guess how modifying an existing output file indicates that the file was created by using MOVA during a facial capture shoot. 

The court also dismissed Rearden’s patent infringement claims because Rearden’s patents “merely invoke generic processes” such as tracking and creating, as well as “fail to recite specific means of implementing the abstract concept of markerless facial motion capture.” As such, the court found that the patents were directed to mere abstract ideas.

Summary prepared by David Grossman and Alex Loh