from the vroom-vroom dept
Roughly a year ago, we discussed a lawsuit brought by K&K Promotions, the company that holds the trademark and publicity rights for the now-deceased stuntman Evel Knievel, against Disney. At issue was a character in Toy Story 4 named Duke Caboom, a toy version of a motorcycle stuntman that certainly had elements of homage to Knievel. But not just Knievel, which is important. Instead, a la several lawsuits Rockstar Games has faced over characters appearing in the Grand Theft Auto series, Caboom was an amalgam of retro-era stuntmen, not a faithful depiction of any one of them, including Knievel. And, while some who worked on the film even mentioned that Knievel was one of the inspiration points for the character, they also noted that Knievel’s routine, garb, and mannerisms were hardly unique for stuntmen in that era. Despite that, K&K insisted that Caboom was a clear ripoff and appropriation of Knievel.
Well, Disney moved to dismiss the case, claiming essentially the above: Duke Caboom is based on a compilation of retro-era stuntmen. And the court has now ruled, siding with Disney and dismissing the case.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge James Mahan concluded that the Disney character — a 1970s stuntman action figure — “contains significant transformative elements” that make the character “’reminiscent’ of Evel Knievel, but not a literal depiction.”
Mahan noted the discrepancies between the real-life celebrity stuntman and the animated supporting character from the film.
“The action figure has a different name, different clothing, Canadian rather than American insignia, the addition of a moustache and a different hair color and style,” Mahan wrote.
The reasons for siding with Disney don’t stop there. The court put this issue through the Rogers test. The court concluded that Duke Caboom was an integral character in the film (this author can confirm that, having seen the film), that there were no attempts at convincing film-goers that Knievel was in any way involved in the film’s production, nor that the character was a 1-to-1 likeness of Knievel. This is the GTA stuff all over again, in other words. The character is a combination of several retro-pop-culture references to stuntmen from decades past, incorporating elements from several individuals to create a new character. Given the film’s free speech and artistic protections, the court really had no other way to rule on this.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the case is that no settlement was reached prior to this ruling. It has become depressingly typical for these cases to not reach a conclusion and result, instead, in some confidential ruling where nobody knows if or how much money changed hands in either direction. That would lead me to believe that K&K either was unwilling to play settlement ball or, perhaps more likely in this instance, Disney knew it was on such solid ground, it didn’t need to engage in settlement talks.
Either way, it’s nice to see a ruling get this right on artistic and speech grounds.