News & Cues: Disney getting the cold shoulder over ‘Frozen’ trailer?

Disney has almost found itself in the middle of an interesting copyright brawl over the trailer of its smash hit ‘Frozen’. Filed by Kelly Wilson, an independent animator, the law-suit claims that Disney’s trailer has infringed on Wilson’s 2D computer animated film, ‘The Snowman’. While we’re still waiting to see where this case is headed, this is one of the few instances where the odds seem to be against Disney making it an interesting case to follow if you’re an independent artist or animator.

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of HarshLight

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of HarshLight

So how is the trailer similar to ‘The Snowman’?

Wilson’s ‘The Snowman’ is the story of an ordinary snowman struggling to retrieve his carrot nose from a forest animal. Although Disney’s ‘Frozen’ features the escapades of a reindeer and a snowman, the main plot of the movie is a re-interpretation of the famous fairy tale, the Ice Queen.

Having said that, the ‘Frozen’ trailer in question features a struggle between the movie’s snowman and reindeer over the former’s carrot nose and does not actually make any reference to the movie’s main plot.

Big deal – the plot of a snowman fighting over his nose with a reindeer is just an idea, right?

If you don’t already know, the law extends protection over the expression of an idea and not an idea itself, since the latter is considered to be too generic to qualify for exclusive protection (you can read more about idea- expression dichotomy here and here). This means that in order to sue someone for copying, you need to show specific expression that has been reproduced. In this case, Wilson’s lawyers would have to show that the ‘Frozen’ trailer has borrowed specific elements from ‘The Snowman’ in order to prove a possible infringement of copyrighted expression.

According to the court, the trailer and the animated short have the following things in common suggesting that there has been copying of expression and not just an idea.

  • both clips are about a snowman losing his carrot nose;
  • the carrot nose slips onto the middle of the frozen pond;
  • on either side of the pond, stand the snowman and an animal rival;
  • both characters contest for the carrot nose;
  • accompanied by music, the screen pans back and forth between the two characters;
  • both the snowman and animal arrive at the carrot nose at the same time;
  • the animal gets the carrot nose and it would seem that the carrot will be consumed;
  • however, the clips end with the animal returning the nose to the snowman.
This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of gwaar

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of gwaar

So what now?

Based on their observations, the Court has not dismissed the law suit so this means that Disney might be on the verge of some trouble. Although Disney tried to defend itself by referencing the Funk Parlour ruling (insert something), the Court stated that the similarities between the trailer and the animated short were close enough to warrant the attention of a jury. What remains to be seen is whether Disney will choose to settle out of court with Wilson or take its chances in the courts. Either way, Wilson’s law suit is a nod in the right direction, in an entertainment industry where smaller artists are often at the mercy of the larger industry players.

Do you think that Disney’s trailer is really that similar to Wilson’s short? Why not decide for yourself and let us know after taking a look at ‘The Snowman’ and the ‘Frozen’ trailer in question? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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