Appeals Court Revives Copyright Lawsuit Over 'Shape of Water'

An appeals court says that additional evidence, including expert testimony, is needed to weigh similarities between the Academy Award-winning film and a play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Zindel.
Fox Searchlight Pictures/Photofest

On Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals breathed new life into a copyright lawsuit alleging that Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning The Shape of Water infringed the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Zindel.

"Here, the district court erred by dismissing the action because, at this stage, reasonable minds could differ on whether there is substantial similarity between Let Me Hear You Whisper and The Shape of Water," states a memorandum opinion. "Though both works properly were presented to the district court, additional evidence, including expert testimony, would aid in the objective literary analysis needed to determine the extent and qualitative importance of the similarities that Zindel identified in the works’ expressive elements, particularly the plausibly alleged shared plot sequence."

The decision marks a setback for Searchlight, which was one of the units sold by Rupert Murdoch to The Walt Disney Co. in March of last year. The studio had thought it had knocked out a case that was filed on the eve of the 2018 Academy Awards, where Shape of Water earned best picture.

Back in July 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson saw some similarities between the two works, but not enough to move forward. For example, he wrote, "Although the Play and the Film share the basic premise of an employee at a scientific facility deciding to free a creature that is subjected to scientific experiments, that concept is too general to be protected."

Today, the appeals court rules that Zindel's heirs should have gotten greater opportunity to explore these issues. The memorandum adds, "Additional evidence would also illuminate whether any similarities are mere unprotectable literary tropes or scènes à faire."

Says a spokesperson for Searchlight Pictures, "The plaintiff’s claims will have no greater merit the second time around in district court and we are confident we will prevail against this baseless complaint."