Courthouses in California certainly see their fair share of interesting suits, and we’ve written about most of them (in the realm of intellectual property and entertainment law, that is). Today, of course, we’re hitting one one was filed against Disney Pixar in the United States Federal District Court for the Northern District of California earlier this week.
The plaintiff in this case, Damon Pourshian, is a Toronto-based creator, director, cinematographer, and editor who allegedly created a script and short film during his time at Sheridan College titled Inside Out. Pourshian asserts that many of the other students who attended Sheridan College went on to have a connection with Disney/Pixar’s 2015 release, Inside Out.
The complaint states that Pourshian’s Inside Out follows the story of a young boy named Lewis and his reactions to the events that happen in his everyday life. His reactions are illustrated through anthropomorphized representations of his bodily organs that influence and react to his actions, his feelings, and the world around him. Lewis’s brain holds a “command center,” similar to the one in Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out with a complicated control desk, and Lewis’s internal organs (his Heart, Brain, Stomach, and so forth) communicate and interact with each other.
If you’ve seen Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, you might already see the (slight) similarities and (big) differences between it and Pourshian’s work. Disney’s Inside Out follows the story of a teen named Riley who goes through a lot of life changes- such as moving out of her hometown, starting a new school, and so forth. Disney’s Inside Out follows the interactions between Riley’s emotions- Fear, Joy, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness- who communicate and squabble with each other in the brain’s command center. Naturally, each personified emotion has a different personality, making their interactions entertaining and endearing.
Pourshian claims in the complaint that he received unsolicited calls from old classmates at Sheridan upon the release of Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out with each pointing out the striking similarities between his work and the one that Disney had just released. Once he did some research about the connections between his alma matter and the release of the film, he came to the conclusion that Disney/Pixar had infringed on his work and filed suit.
The complaint points out specific similarities between Disney’s Inside Out and Pourshian’s Inside out, for example, the complaint states:
“Even the aesthetics and color schemes of the control rooms are nearly identical, with both command centers having a purple-lit foreground morphing into a blue background. Each control panel is a long, light-colored control panel table, with characters in position to control the protagonists through the control panel’s lighted buttons and levers. Both command centers even include blue windows in the background.”
The complaint even goes so far as to note the similarities between various visual cues in the film:
Noting the big red “Emergency Button” on the control panel table.
Noting that Pourshian’s Heart character and Disney’s Joy character are “both played by optimistic women with short haircuts wearing sleeveless tops.” At one point, both characters are shown to be surrounded by balloons.
Both Lewis and Riley are tucked in with the help of their internal functions and have “brunette mothers leaving over them to give each a goodnight kiss.”
The complaint points out further similarities, including the number of personified characters, their personalities, the mood and the pace of the films, and so forth. Overall, Pourshian claims that the works are substantially similar in plot and sequence of events; setting, mood, and pace; and visual cues.
This isn’t the first time Disney/Pixar’s has had to fight to prove its creative rights to Inside Out. Earlier this year, child development specialist Denise Daniels alleged that the characters from Inside Out were stolen from her college project, The Moodsters. Fortunately for Disney, this case was dismissed, as the court found that none of the claims that Daniels made were sufficiently pled because she released the materials publicly, creating no implied contract between herself and Disney.
Another suit along the same lines was filed earlier this month when a Nevada woman, Carla Masterson, claimed that Inside Out infringed on two of her written works, What’s on the Other Side of the Rainbow? as well as The Secret of the Golden Mirror. Apparently, her book was included in Emmy Ceremony gift bags in 2010 and Academy Award ceremonies in 2011, where Disney executives were likely to have access to the book. Apparently, Masterson’s book personifies emotions of Joy, Fear, Sad, Anger, and so forth to help children identify, understand, and manage their feelings.
Unfortunately for these parties, the idea of personifying feelings, organs, and internal functions is not a novel concept. Just to name a few, we had personified cells in Osmosis Jones and Schoolhouse Rock personified the nervous system before I was even born. On top of that, the idea of the brain being a “control center” is hardly anything new- in fact, it seems like the logical step to take when it comes to figuring out how to incorporate the brain’s place in the context of the rest of the body.
I think that Disney has an especially good argument against Pourshian in this case. Specifically, Disney is personifying emotions, not organs, and Pourshian’s complaint does not touch upon some of the most important details included in Disney’s Inside Out (such as the use of the memory bank and the big adventure that Joy and Sadness go on to essentially save Riley).
In the end, I think that this case is probably going to be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Not only is it clear that Disney’s Inside Out and Pourshian’s Inside Out are not substantially similar, as is required for a copyright infringement claim, but the majority of what Pourshian is trying to claim ownership of here is his ideas, not the creative aspects of his expression of those ideas. Only the creative elements of a work can be protected by copyright.
Author, Caroline Womack, is a rising 3L at Quinnipiac University School of Law and primarily studies intellectual property law, focusing on video game and internet law.