California Federal Court Sides with Filmmaker in Frozen Copyright Infringement Claim
A federal judge in Northern California refused to throw out a claim that Walt Disney Co. infringed a filmmaker’s copyright in a short film involving a snowman.
Kelly Wilson created a short animated film called “The Snowman” between 2008 and 2010.
The film features a snowman who loses his carrot nose, with the intervention of some hungry rabbits. The carrot slides into the middle of a frozen lake, and both the snowman and the rabbits attempt to retrieve it. The ice cracks, endangering a rabbit, and the snowman uses the carrot to rescue his former adversary, who then returns his nose.
The film was shown at eight film festivals and online.
In the teaser trailer for Disney’s feature-length animated film Frozen, the snowman character sneezes off his carrot nose, which then slides to the middle of a frozen lake. Both the snowman and a hungry reindeer attempt to retrieve the carrot. The reindeer initially succeeds, but then returns the carrot to the snowman.
The footage in the teaser did not appear in the final version of Frozen.
Wilson sued Disney for copyright infringement in March, and Disney sought to have the case dismissed.
The judge found that the plot and sequence of events for each work were substantially similar, stating “the sequence of events in both works, from start to finish, is too parallel to conclude that no reasonable juror could find the works substantially similar.”
The judge noted that both the short film and the Frozen teaser contained the following chain of events:
- A snowman loses his carrot nose.
- The nose slides to the middle of a frozen pond.
- The snowman is on one side of the pond and an animal who covets the nose is on the other side.
- The characters engage in a contest to get the nose.
- The screen pans back and forth from the snowman to the animal, with music, as they both try to get to the nose.
- The snowman and the animal arrive at the nose at the same time.
- The animal ends up with the nose, leading the snowman (and the viewer) to wonder if it will be eaten.
- In the end, the animal returns the nose to the snowman.
The judge did note that the tone of the short is dour, whereas the teaser is goofy. The judge also distinguished between rabbits and reindeer.
The judge did dismiss the part of the plaintiff’s claim that the full-length version of Frozen (in which the scene did not appear) infringed her copyright.
This case illustrates how copyright law differentiates between a generic sequence of events — an “idea” (which is not protected by copyright law) and an “artistic expression” (which is protected).
Attorney Laura Lloyd adds,
Copyright infringement cases can be very subjective. Talking with a copyright lawyer can help you identify the most compelling aspects of your case before you invest in costly litigation.
If you have questions about what elements of a work are protectable under copyright law, contact our office for a free initial consultation.
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Photo Attribution: “Charlie” by Thomas Cook is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.