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Muppet Babies, a reboot of the 1984 animated series of the same name, premiered in 2018 with a slight twist: the pattern of the nanny’s socks change every episode. That variation spawned a copyright infringement lawsuit against Disney from Jeffrey Scott, a screenwriter of the original series, that was dismissed due to unusual circumstances surrounding his personal bankruptcy.
After some legal maneuvering by Scott in bankruptcy court to revive his case, a federal judge on Monday rebuffed Disney’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld found that Disney may have copied elements of the show from the original Muppet Babies production bible that Scott created in the 1980s. The order keeps in line with recent mandates from a federal appeals court not to prematurely dismiss copyright cases at the pleading stage.
Scott in 2020 sued Disney, but the case didn’t get far. It turned out that Scott’s bankruptcy estate owned the production bible central to his claims. Without ownership of the asset, he had no standing to sue.
After reopening his 1995 and 2003 bankruptcy proceedings to include the copyright claims in the estate, Scott refiled his lawsuit with trustee Howard Ehrenberg representing him. After Disney moved to dismiss the case, Blumenfeld found that Scott sufficiently alleged that some “nontrivial elements” in his production bible and script are protectable, but that he hadn’t adequately argued the disputed works are substantially similar.
This time around, Blumenfeld concluded that Scott met the standard to advance his copyright claims. He pointed to numerous examples of content in the Muppet Babies reboot that Disney allegedly copied from Scott’s production bible and scripts.
“For example, Plaintiffs plausibly allege that Disney, throughout the reboot, used the same nanny character with her distinctive colored socks, who is only ever seen from the legs down, created by Scott in his production bible and scripts,” states the order. “Plaintiffs also plausibly allege substantial similarity between specific scripts written by Scott and specific reboot episodes. For example, they allege that the reboot episode ‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ copies Scott’s ‘The Muppet Museum of Art’ script, as both involve the characters viewing impressionist artwork shown in photorealistic images, including Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. And in both episodes, the character Animal exclaims, ‘Renoir!'”
The combination of so many specific elements in a short children’s program, particularly where the allegedly infringing work presents a very similar context as a reboot of the original series that Scott helped develop, may constitute infringement, the judge said.
Scott’s overlapping breach of contract claims were also allowed to move forward. They revolved around the argument that the screenwriter — known for his work on shows including Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling — and Disney entered into an implied contract when he submitted in 2016 his ideas for a Muppet Babies reboot, leading to the solicitation of additional ideas.
Blumenfeld rejected Disney’s claim that Scott’s allegations establish, at most, an expectation that it would pay him only if he were hired to write scripts for the reboot — not for merely using his ideas. There’s vast precedent emphasizing the significance of TV writing industry practices in which writers submit copyrighted scripts to producers with the understanding of compensation if the material is used, he found.
Disney similarly lost on moving to dismiss Scott’s fraud claims. The lawsuit emphasized an email from company executive Alyssa Sapire in which she concealed from Scott that Disney had no intention of including him in the reboot despite asking for ideas.
“Would you send us a one sheet on the new creative direction you intend to take with the show … This will help us move the project forward,” Sapire wrote in a 2016 email.
In February, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit accusing M. Night Shyamalan of ripping off a 2013 independent movie for his Apple TV+ series Servant. It found that dismissal at such an “early stage of the case was improper,” since “reasonable minds could differ” on whether the disputed works are substantially similar.
“This is a case in which discovery could shed light on [the] issues that actually matter to the outcome,” reads the order. “In particular, expert testimony would aid the court in objectively evaluating similarities in cinematic techniques … determining the extent and qualitative importance of similar elements between the works, and comparing works in the different mediums of film and television.”
The decision was at least the third from a federal appeals court since 2020 reversing a federal judge’s order dismissing a copyright lawsuit. The 9th Circuit has cautioned lower courts against imposing their views on what are supposed to be subjective inquiries typically requiring expert testimony.
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