Disney Beats 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Copyright Lawsuit

In the lawsuit, an author claimed credit for pirates transforming into living skeletons under the moonlight.

An author's attempt to wrangle billions over Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has come to naught after a federal judge ruled that a message to the company's "alert line" didn't properly rescind a settlement agreement.

The plaintiff in this case is Royce Mathew, a Florida-based author of supernatural adventure stories, who claimed to have work stolen for the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Mathew first sued in 2005, then dismissed his complaint. He again sued in 2006, but backed down after Disney presented old "theme park art" that predated his own and represented that it had independently created "the unique supernatural elements in [Pirates of the Caribbean] that involves pirates transforming and turning into living skeletons under the moonlight due to a hideous curse affecting them."

When Mathew withdrew his lawsuit, he signed a release form.

But afterwards, Disney published more books, which included modified versions of the theme park art, attributed to different artists, and Mathew began to grow suspicious.

In a third lawsuit in 2013, he claimed that Disney had "altered and tampered" with the artwork for the purpose of creating the illusion that it had independently created the element of pirates transforming into living skeletons under the moonlight.

The lawsuit was filed in Florida, then re-filed in New York, before eventually being transferred to California. But the judge isn't even going to get into the issue of whether Mathew's work is protected and whether Disney stole it. Instead, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner rules that before Mathew can assert any copyright claims, he had a duty to properly allege notice of rescission on that release he signed at the end of the second lawsuit.

Mathew had attempted to accuse Disney in a 2009 letter of fraud. He followed up with messages through an alert line — we're guessing here — that invited Disney to reply in advance of "filing complaints and charges."

"There is no indication in the 2009 Letter that 'filing formal complaints' meant that Plaintiff considered the Release rescinded, or even that Plaintiff intended to seek such relief by filing suit against Defendants," writes the judge. "In fact, Plaintiff indicates the exact opposite when he states that it is 'pointless to ever seek accountability... by way of the court.”

The judge later adds that Alert Line is no substitute to necessary and proper notice under the California statute that governs rescission. He also rejects the argument that the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc —the Raging Bull decision that held that an unreasonable delay isn't a complete bar to federal copyright infringement claims — exempted Mathew from the notice requirement.

"Defendants have never maintained that laches is a complete bar to Plaintiff’s copyright infringement claims," writes the judge in an opinion that grants Disney's motion to dismiss without any opportunity for Mathew to amend his claims. "Defendants argue, and continue to argue that the Release bars Plaintiff’s claims, and that if Plaintiff wants to pursue his copyright claims, he must first properly allege a rescission claim."

Here's the full opinion.

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