The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit by an author who claimed that Disney’s massive movie hit Frozen infringed her copyright.

Yearnings

Isabella Tanikumi is the author of two autobiographic works: Yearnings of the Heart and Living My Truth, An Internal Odyssey.

In 2014, she sued Disney, saying that the studio had infringed her copyrights in releasing Frozen. She sought $250 million in actual damages as well as punitive damages.

Disney moved to dismiss, arguing that the movie was not “substantially similar” to the books.

The Stories

The district court summarized Tanikumi’s works as follows:

Yearnings of the Heart follows the trajectory of the author’s life and how she emotionally overcame external tragedies and inner insecurities. The book begins with the author growing up in Huaraz, a city in the mountains of Peru. Her family survives a devastating earthquake. She suffers a kitchen accident that scars her face and leaves her with emotional insecurities. She endures romantic jiltings several times as a teenager.

She moves to Lima to study nursing and lives with her sister Laura, with whom she shares an intense sisterly bond. She dates a man she ultimately rejects because of his alcoholism. Tragically, Laura dies when she is hit by a drunk driver.

Frozen on the other hand, was inspired by the public domain Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen. According to the court, it tells the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, who are princesses of a make-believe Nordic kingdom called Arendelle. The sisters have a fight, and in the course of doing so, Elsa accidentally exposes her powers to a crowd of horrified onlookers. Embarrassed and accused of being a witch, Elsa flees to the mountains to live alone in an ice castle. Inadvertently, she creates a permanent winter in the kingdom during her flight.

Similarities

Tanikumicontended that there were many… tens, perhaps more than 100, points of identical characters, events, mishaps, emotions and words and phrases that are found in both works and Defendants’ Frozen.

For example, she said that:

both Yearnings and Frozen involve: a village at the foot of snow covered mountains; two sisters with “intense sisterly love”; an incident in which the older sister accidentally injures the younger sister and the younger sister has no memory of the incident; a traumatic natural disaster; the betrayal of a young girl’s first love; and romantic scenes set under the shadows of the moon.

The Third Circuit agreed with the District Court that the works are not substantially similar:

the similarities that Yearnings and Frozen share pertain only to generic plot and theme ideas, not protectable expressions; while both works feature a mountain setting, an intense sisterly bond, an untrue lover, and a resolution in which the female protagonist comes into her own without the help of a man, copyright law does not protect such common topics in autobiographical literature and film.

The case is Tanikumi v. The Walt Disney Company et al.

Takeaway

Reported decisions involving lawsuits in which a screenwriter or other author claims a studio “stole” the “idea” for a movie almost always end with a win for the studio because studios vigorously fight unfounded claims.

About Us

Leech Tishman’s Intellectual Property Group is based in Pasadena, California with a team of highly-regarded legal professionals with prosecution and litigation expertise in the fields of patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secrets.

Please also visit us online for more information about our services.

Photo Attribution: “DuPont Chestnut Run Plaza entrance” by Littleinfo – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

[xyz-ihs snippet=”eyeonip-disclaimer”]