Disney Wins Dismissal of 'Zootopia' Copyright Lawsuit (for Now)

zootopia still new 3 - H 2016

A California federal judge has rejected a copyright complaint targeting Zootopia, Disney's Oscar-winning animated film that grossed more than $1 billion two years ago. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the plaintiff hadn't show him enough to state a plausible claim for infringement.

Esplanade Productions filed the lawsuit in March. The plaintiff alleged that Zootopia was derived from work pitched by Gary L. Goldman, whose credits include writing Total Recall and Next and producing Minority Report. In his complaint, Goldman described working with Disney on another film and pitching his own project (titled Looney) to the studio at least twice.

The problem, as Fitzgerald sees it, is that Esplanade failed to include Goldman's materials for review. After Disney complained about this in its dismissal bid, Esplanade attempted to detail similarities, but it was insufficient for the judge.

"The parties now dispute whether Goldman’s materials are sufficiently similar to the Disney film to support an action for copyright infringement," writes Fitzgerald. "But despite both parties’ urging, the Court cannot engage in a copying analysis on the merits because Esplanade failed either to attach the allegedly infringed materials to the Complaint, or to describe them in sufficient detail to permit the requested analysis."

Despite coming to this conclusion, the judge runs through an analysis anyway.

For example, there's the plot of both works.

"Perhaps the most specific and detailed allegation is that the two protagonists present an odd pair — one a predator, the other prey, one optimistic, the other a cynical pessimist," states the order to dismiss. "But this is a cliché of the buddy cop genre. See, e.g., Men in Black (Columbia Pictures 1997) (streetwise, charming youngster is paired with a stodgy old coot); Rush Hour (New Line Cinema 1998) (straight-laced Hong Kong detective is paired with wisecracking, reckless LAPD detective); The Heat (20th Century Fox 2013) (straight-laced FBI agent is paired with an unconventional Boston cop)."

Then there are the characters:

"The differences between the character designs outnumber the similarities," writes the judge. "Most obviously, almost none of the above pairings actually include the same animals. A hyena is not a fox (and in reality is a much larger animal than a fox) and a grizzly bear is not a water buffalo. Additionally, the Looney characters are unclothed while the Zootopia characters are all elaborately costumed. And the animation style itself is very different between the two sets of characters: whereas the Disney characters are typically cute and appealing, the Looney characters evoke a darker, seedier aesthetic. ... The two character designs bear little resemblance to one another."

As a result, Fitzgerald grants Disney's dismissal motion but does so with leave to amend, meaning that Esplanade will have an opportunity to cure defects.

In the meantime, Disney is winning and is represented by Daniel Petrocelli and Bo Pearl at O'Melveny. Esplanade is handled by Gary Gans and Jeffery McFarland at Quinn Emanuel.

Here's the full order.