To no one’s surprise, Disney responded to the Frozen copyright lawsuit by asking it to be dismissed.
To recap, in September, Amy Gonzalez, (who writes under the pen name of Isabella Tanikumi, or TaniKumi, she isn’t consistent in the capitalization) filed a lawsuit alleging Disney’s movie “Frozen” plagiarized her book which currently goes by the title of “Yearnings of the Heart.” The lawsuit generated considerable publicity, most of it harshly criticizing her claims.
Disney’s filing (on Jan. 15, 2015) argues there are two separate reasons why the court should dismiss the lawsuit. First, the complaint fails to allege how Frozen’s writers had access to “Yearnings of the Heart.” Second, the two works (both of which Disney provided to the court as exhibits) are not substantially similar, and thus, even if Disney had access to the book, Frozen did not infringe the book. While either is a reason the court can dismiss the lawsuit, these arguments are actually related ones.
Copyright law requires proof of copying. No matter how similar two works may be (even to the point of identity), if the author of the latter work (i.e. “Frozen”) did not in fact copy the prior work (i.e. “Yearnings of the Heart”), there is no infringement. Proof the authors of the latter work had access to the prior work tends to show that the latter work was a copy (but it is not alone sufficient). If the prior work has been widely disseminated to the public, it is (obviously) easier to establish access. Even if there isn’t clear proof of access, evidence of a striking similarity between the two works can be sufficient to raise an inference of access. But access alone can’t establish infringement. Even there is proof of access, there must also be proof that the latter work copied a substantial amount of the prior work.
Disney’s first point is that there “is not a single allegation making it plausible that Disney had access to Plaintiff’s self-published memoir from any source. Plaintiff has not alleged when or where her book was sold, much less in what volume and to whom.” As noted, the comment about the volume (or lack thereof) of book sales addresses the principle that wide dissemination makes it easier to show access. Here, of course, “Yearnings of the Heart” toiled in utter obscurity before Ms. Gonzalez filed her lawsuit.
Disney’s substantial similarity argument is far more interesting. To quote Disney’s brief (link):
Plaintiff’s contention that Yearnings of the Heart and Frozen are substantially similar is absurd. To contrive a valid claim, Plaintiff in some instances resorts to outright fabrication. For instance, Plaintiff claims that both works have “two male characters” named “Hans and Cristoff who have romantic interests” in a female character. In fact there are no characters named “Hans” or “Cristoff” in Yearnings of the Heart. Even when she describes the works accurately, Plaintiff’s examples of alleged “Plagiarism”—e.g., that the stories are set in “Villages,” or include “Two Sisters” who share “Intense Sisterly Love,” or that one “Sister Falls in Love”—allege only similarities between the most generic elements of the two plots. Because copyright law “protect[s] only the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself,” these allegations do not come close to pleading substantial similarity as a matter of law.
Frozen is an animated fantasy tale. It has princesses and princes, talking snowmen, magic, trolls, musical numbers, and numerous other elements with no parallel in Plaintiff’s work. Yearnings of the Heart, by contrast, is a memoir about a Peruvian immigrant’s journey to find professional success and romantic fulfillment in the United States. The handful of similarities between the two works are nothing more than similarities in concepts: both works have sisters, romantic relationships, mountain locales, and heroines who have an issue about which they are ashamed. Similar generic plot ideas like these exist in countless works, and cannot make two works substantially similar. No author has a monopoly on the generic building blocks of plots.
there is no “Cristoff” in Plaintiff’s work. Isabella in fact goes to visit Diego with a man named “Johann,” a childhood friend. Diego is an “indigenous Peruvian Indian” who is rumored by villagers in Huaraz to have been “abducted by aliens and rehabilitated of a serious illness.” Diego is also believed to be in close communication with the aliens who cured him. Johann is not friends with Diego. Nonetheless, out of curiosity, Johann and Isabella visit Diego and speak with him for some time before leaving.
Frozen features trolls who actually have magical healing powers and actually are friends with a man named Kristoff. Kristoff and Anna visit the trolls not out of curiosity but out of urgency after Anna is struck by Elsa. The head troll tells them that only an “act of true love” can save Anna. Once again, the actual expression in the two works could not be more different.
While the name “Hans” is a shortened version of “Johannes,” it is rather ridiculous to argue the two works are substantially similar because they both use the same name derivative. Johannes is essentially “John” in the English language, so Ms. Gonzalez’ argument is like saying two works are similar because they both have characters named “John” or, perhaps more analogously, because the prior work uses “John” while the latter uses “Jack.” It’s also notable that, plot-wise, the characters are reversed. “Johann” is apparently something of a friend in the book but, as any Frozen fan knows, Hans turns out to be anything but Anna’s friend.
The court will give Mrs. Gonzalez the opportunity to respond to Disney’s motion. It appears she is still representing herself so I don’t expect her to wait too long to respond (assuming she responds at all). I am finding it hard to see how she can overcome Disney’s substantial similarity arguments. Were it otherwise, Disney would be able to argue that the Harry Potter stories infringed on the Star Wars saga.