Animator Sues Disney For Allegedly Ripping Off Her Short Film For Its 'Frozen' Trailer

from the sticking-it-to-The-(Mouse-Eared)-Man dept

Disney has always found overbearing copyright protection to be an integral part of its business model, so much so that it has lobbied hard for copyright extensions while plundering the depths of the public domain for source material, shortsightedly failing to realize that one action undermines the other.

Disney doesn’t get named in too many infringement lawsuits, but like any studio with a big hit on its hands (in this case, Frozen, which just became the most successful animated film of all time), there’s always the chance someone will come looking for a piece of the action. Unlike the multiple lawsuits filed against the creators of Avatar, this one, filed by animator Kelly Wilson, appears to have some merit.

Wilson’s animated short film, The Snowman, has been all over the internet since its release in 2010. It was even entered in several animated film festivals where Pixar employees “were present and competing” in the same category. Wilson doesn’t say she personally showed this to Disney employees but she infers that there were many, many ways anyone could have viewed her creation prior to Frozen’s development. She does note, however, that Disney’s personnel had been supplied with copies of the animated work in the past.

Plaintiff created The Snowman and submitted The Snowman—in part and in full—to Defendants as part of job applications on four different occasions from 2009 through 2012. The Snowman was also submitted via DVD to Defendants in 2010 as part of a job application from The Snowman’s co-creator Neil Wrischnik. Disney has surreptitiously appropriated Plaintiff’s valuable work The Snowman to create the FROZEN teaser trailer and the character of Olaf the snowman in FROZEN without any attempt to obtain authorization from Plaintiff or to accord her credit.

What’s interesting about Wilson’s case are two things:

One, she isn’t going after Frozen itself, but rather its first trailer, which featured a storyline remarkably similar to hers. However, Wilson is looking to grab a part of any and all profits made by the movie because the allegedly infringing trailer was used to promote the film.

Two, there are some very distinct similarities to her animated film, as she details in a series of screencaps contained in the filing.


Here’s the two in motion for comparison:


Beyond that, her filing links to other websites and writers who noticed the similarity between the Frozen trailer and Wilson’s work, including a Slate writer whose daughter was disappointed the actual movie wasn’t just about a wacky snowman.

The case, as it’s laid out by Wilson and her legal rep, is pretty solid. While there are a few areas that are rather gray (the similarities of any narrative — antagonist/protagonist, ice is slippery, forest animals are exchangable, etc.), many of the smaller details seem to indicate there’s been some copying going on.

The Snowman and the FROZEN teaser trailer present the exact same plot in exactly the same sequence… There is no difference in the plot between the two works, except that The Snowman is longer in running time and therefore has additional plot elements. Both works are about: (1) a snowman competing with animals for a carrot nose on slippery ice; and (2) the formerly adversarial animals acting out of friendship to return the carrot nose to the snowman…

[T]he artistic rendering of the snowmen in both The Snowman and the FROZEN teaser trailer is likewise substantially similar. Both snowmen are portrayed as awkward, insecure and clumsy, and both are portrayed as having lanky bodies with heads larger than their bodies… [Wilson notes that most snowmen are portrayed as having heads smaller than their bodies elsewhere in the filing.]

First, in The Snowman, the snowman competes with the rabbits on the slippery ice to retrieve the carrot. Similarly, in the FROZEN teaser trailer, Olaf the snowman competes with the moose on the slippery ice to retrieve the carrot. Second, in The Snowman, the snowman is able to take hold of the carrot before the rabbit does. Similarly, in the FROZEN teaser trailer, Olaf the snowman is able to take hold of the carrot before the moose does. Third, in The Snowman, the snowman loses his carrot nose to the rabbit when both he and the rabbit have a grip on the carrot but the rabbit ends up wresting control of the carrot from the snowman. Similarly, in the FROZEN teaser trailer, Olaf the snowman loses his carrot nose to the moose when both he and the moose have a grip on the carrot but the moose ends up wresting control of the carrot from Olaf the snowman..

Wilson goes into much more detail in the filing, but her inclusion of independent parties who have noticed the similarities helps set this apart from other lawsuits in which the infringement noted was largely subjective.

We’ll have to wait for Disney’s response to see where this is going, but this lawsuit does look a bit more valid than others that have been filed in the wake of runaway successes. As much as I’d personally like to see Disney get smacked for infringement damages, I’m personally a bit hesitant to back Wilson’s claims that an infringed short film is due a cut of the profits made by Frozen, especially considering the allegations only cover a trailer whose events are not part of the larger film.

In addition, the demands made might play right into Disney’s hands. Wilson asks for Disney to account for “any and all profits” derived from the “exploitation” of The Snowman. Hollywood accounting has shown over the years that some of the most successful movies have yet to show a profit. Deploying enough creativity in the ledger could have Disney offering Wilson a cut of its “empty” pockets.

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Comments on “Animator Sues Disney For Allegedly Ripping Off Her Short Film For Its 'Frozen' Trailer”

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63 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s built into the system really. Your rights extend only so far as you’re financially able to argue them. That’s why maximalists love it when small timers make their case for them because they know they will never have anything to fear from them but they make much better sob stories and poster children. It’s how you trick people into forming a grass roots movement for your cause even though you’re soulless and unsympathetic, you make the people that genuinely believe in the cause your front men and you don’t let them in on the joke. I wish more artists would see through this bullshit.

lm888 says:

Re: Disney

Have you actually ever seen Kimba the White Lion? Have you bothered to look it up? The series in general is nothing like the movie. People only say they copied it because Simba’s name is so similar… but that’s only because they didn’t replace the S with a K like Japan did. Get your facts straight instead of regurgitating the same tired complaint that no one has bothered to actually research.

MacCruiskeen says:

Re: Re: Re:

Indeed–When Kit Reed sued Disney for using bits of her story “Attack of the Giant Baby” in making “Honey I Blew Up the Kid”, she was able to get them to add credits to the film, because she was able to demonstrate that they had copied particular scenes in the story. She didn’t invent the idea of growing giant babies. In these cases, the particular details matter a lot.

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: Re:

I don’t see much of a resemblance. Even if the Snow Queen was not in the public domain (which it isn’t) I wouldn’t bother suing. The only similarity I recognize from the summary you linked to on Wikipedia was the words “frozen heart” . I believe the answer to your question is “nobody, Frozen would definitely fall under remix rights, if it was even recognized as a derivative work”

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Depends on whether they ask for net or gross. I don’t believe the original document specifies which.

Although, it does specify “all media”. If that includes merchandising, that’s probably going to be more difficult to hide.

Part of me just wishes that we get to a trial and judgement here quite quickly. I’d love to read the methods they use to argue that a movie with a $150 million production budget can gross over $1 billion theatrically worldwide + home media + digital + licencing + merchandising and actually lose money…

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

yikes!
am i the only curmudgeon on the planet who was ‘meh’ on frozen ? ? ?
1. LOVE animation, (but not just because it is animation…)
2. the story was pitiful: EVERYONE walks away unscathed with NO real lessons learned, except, its good to be the king/queen… some of the plot was forced and stupid…
3. as per the usual disney formula, the music was overblown, the lyrics were insipid, and the pretty, pretty voices were oh-so-sincere about cliches…
4. the trite content pointed to adults, lame anachronistic jokes, and predictable gags were boring…
(for an animation which appealed to kids AND adults, see despicable me, done absolutely pitch perfect)
5. sure, PLENTY of nice visuals, OF COURSE it is ‘made well’, which makes it watchable; but the payoff is predictable and safe…
all in all: i give it 3 out of 5 ‘mehs’

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

oh, and one of the major points i hate about most any disney animation (or similar films), is that it is often resolved by ‘magic’; the cheapest trick in the book, yet they use it over and over and over again…
really, you learn NOTHING from ‘…and they waved a magic wand and everything was made right and they lived happily ever after…’
that’s the cheap and easy way out, instead of an actual plot with actual characters…

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

An author?s ability to [resolve a narrative conflict] with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.
— Sanderson’s First Law

If the audience understands the rules and was given enough information to be capable of figuring out the solution before it happened, then it’s OK. Otherwise, it feels like the author just pulled a solution out of his Deus Ex Magia. (Forgive the mixed metaphor.)

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

oh, gosh, what a relief…
NOW, i realize i am truly stupid, and all the rest of the nekkid apes walking around in total denial that this planet is circling the drain are the smart ones…
whew that was close: everything is going to be okay, everything is going to be okay, if i shut my eyes real tight and don’t listen to my instincts screaming, everything is going to be okay…
(repeat non-stop)

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

no, my point was NOT that there should NEVER be a movie made which depends on ‘magic’ to resolve everything; BUT, does nearly EVERY disney movie have to rely on such a trick ? ? ?

JUST LIKE ‘regular’ movies: i really don’t mind that we have secret-agent-assassin-hitmen on a righteous-mission-to-kill-everyone movies, but does it HAVE TO BE -as it seems like- that 90% of them have to be about that -you know- ultra-common set of events ? ? ?

again, NOT opposed to using ‘magic’ as a part of some movie’s world, but it is rarely used ‘logically’… for example, there are PLENTY of places in lord of the rings, where a little gandalf magic would save a ton of time/lives, but he only pulls out his magic bag on dead-end plot points where there is no other way out…

anne gisle says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Okay,i get the point that magic isn’t real and that disney should teach kids to actually solve a problem and that magic is the cheapest solution but,magic is a beautiful idea that should remain in kids hearts and a feeling adults shouldn’t forget because we know how hard it is to grow up and many kids grow up with horrible childhoods but there is always that joy that comes from magic that makes you wonder and i know magic is cheap but while i was growing up my parents went through a lot of things examples my dad left when he came back my parents fought a lot then to make matters worse my mom died my dad suicides shortly after my sister and me had to move to my aunts who was dealing with depression and cancer and disney films helped me through it specifically magic it gave me hope that one day I’d be in a better place,as corny as it may sound

Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger (profile) says:

But, but...

I don’t see a problem with Disney’s action. Clearly they’ve nothing more than create a remix of Wilson’s short work. I’m sure that will simply drive views and sales for her. In fact, she should be overjoyed that an advertising giant like Disney is throwing its weight behind her work.

Do it for the innovation.

Tice with a J (profile) says:

Re: But, but...

Carl, I’ve seen your comments here and at C4SS.org, so let me start by saying: you got screwed, and that ain’t right. You tried to play by the rules of the system, and the system played you. Your situation sucks, and it’s not your fault, and it makes you a perfect candidate for the kind of protection that copyright and trademark are supposed to provide. Indeed, whenever IP comes up for debate, its advocates always draw our attention to the plight of folks like you when they demand action.

And so they act, and they extend copyright and related rights, and they hunt down pirates and plagiarists, and yet, somehow, help never comes your way.

Help’s not coming, Carl. It never was. The IP system really, truly doesn’t care about you, because it can’t. IP was made from the start to defend the big guys from the common folk. It will never serve you. It cannot be changed into something that will help you. It can only be destroyed, so that it can no longer make you false promises.

You and your work deserved better, but we so rarely get what we deserve. The only thing to do now is to figure out how to do without.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: But, but...

@ Tice with a J, you were doing great till you got to the last paragraph. People need to make a living. LAB is another commenter with a dog in this fight and I’ve told him many times to look into adopting other business models as trying to make a living out of selling copies of stuff isn’t going to work when it’s never been easier to copy stuff.

As Old Mugwump pointed out, this is about plagiarism, and even the most pirate-y of us won’t stand for that, particularly when it’s a powerful company like Disney going after an independent filmmaker. It’s not right.

No one ought to be obliged to do without because the big guys can get away with pretending other people’s work is their own. That is not and never will be fair.

Trevor says:

Well

Disney will settle, and this is why:

If this case goes to trial and Disney WINS, people and smaller companies will be able to use this ruling to support the idea that it’s okay to copy Disney’s works to promote their own work, even if their finished product does not resemble the promotion.

If this case goes to trial and Disney LOSES, they will have to make an accounting to a judge showing their actual profits, and if they try to pull the whole “We made a billion but actually lost money” trick the judge might call them out on it. It’s safer to just settle and keep the accounting methods hidden so they can keep doing it.

Jack says:

Re: Well

Yep – this is by far the most likely outcome. Disney would be shooting themselves in the foot by taking this to court – win or lose just like you pointed out. This woman, who is a hell of an animator, struck Disney in one of their only vulnerable spots – kudos to her.

I personally think what Disney did was okay, but F them for doing what they would normally sue anyone else for doing. Let them settle.

Annonimus says:

When was the last time a case dealt with Hollywood Bookkeeping?

No seriously is Hollywood Bookkeeping legal or is it a gray area of the law no judge has looked at as of yet? Because if its the latter then this case might have a chance of causing a court ruling to finally be applied to that gray area and shine a little more light on the situation. An outlier as far as legal results of this case go I know but it would be an interesting turn of events.

Anonymous Coward says:

It may be difficult to get a cut of the box office profits unless the court buys the similarity of the design of the snowman character argument. However the DVD and Blu-Ray has just been released which contains the movie trailers on it in the extra features. I haven’t looked to see if this particular trailer is included but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. If it is, then they may be able to get at least some of the money from the DVD and Blu-Ray sales which is likely to be significant.

Anonymous Coward says:

considering how Disney is just about the most aggressive studio when it comes to suing people over unauthorised use of their stuff (or what looks similar, even when it doesn’t!), this is also typical of it and the other members of Hollywood and the entertainment industries in general! they need to be taught a real stiff lesson here, one that would make it very hard to forget, just as they would expect any lesson they put out to any ordinary individual who used their stuff!!
i hope this person is more than just successful with her case!!

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t really see the similarities, probably because I’ve heard/seen this story years ago and don’t see either work as original.

Snow is generally the required background. I guess theres some similarity in that an ice covered lake is involved?

Snowman loses nose to animal/creature.

Fights with/chases animal/creature for nose.

Loses nose.

Animal/creature takes pity, friendship ensues as nose is returned.

Anonymous Coward says:

I hate Disney too, but do we want to copyright these abstract things- posture, plotting, sequence of events, etc. Sure D ripped her off, or was inspired, or whatever but THAT is what we’re fighting FOR. Disney’s crimes are in not letting others do as they do- find inspiration in other people’s ideas. I don’t want her to syop Disney any more than I want Disney to get SOPA through and for the same reason

Jen says:

I’ve just watched the short animation on youtube, and I really don’t see much similarity.
The quirks that make the Disney trailer what it was (expressions, actions, actions and reactions) wern’t there in the short animation.

Snow is going to look like snow and a snowman is going to look like a snowman. The essence however was very different.

Ellen says:

This makes no sense. Yes, maybe the trailor and this video are a little similar, but the profit wasn’t made from the trailor. It was made from the movie which does not include this scene. There is no reason to press charges. And by the way, that short film wasn’t all that good anyway. Also, to whoever wrote this article, Sven is a reindeer, not a moose.

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