Inside Out Characters Beat Copyright Infringement Claims
In an interesting case about a children’s movie that my children have watched countless times, Disney came under fire for its use of anthropomorphized characters that represent human emotions in Inside Out. See Daniels v. Walt Disney Co., 958 F.3d 767 (9th Cir. 2020). If you haven’t seen the movie, five cartoon characters represent the emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, Anger) of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. However, an expert on children’s emotional intelligence alleged that Disney stole the idea and characters from her creation of The Moodsters, which were brought to life through a pitchbook, a pilot episode, and a line of toys and books. The Moodsters included five color-coded characters that also represented emotions, including love, happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. While there are similarities between the characters of Inside Out and The Moodsters, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court and ruled that the use of anthropomorphized characters representing human emotions did not qualify for copyright protection under the facts of this case. Id. More specifically, The Moodsters did not display consistent, identifiable character traits and were not sufficiently distinctive to trigger copyright protection. See id. at 772-773.
Plaintiff, Denise Daniels, designed and developed initiatives to assist children with handling their emotions. In 2005, she developed The Moodsters Bible (“Bible”), which was a pitchbook for presenting her ideas to media executives and collaborators. The Bible included five color-coded characters that represented different emotions: pink (love); yellow (happiness); blue (sadness); red (anger); and green (fear). Daniels then released a 30-minute pilot episode for a television series featuring The Moodsters in 2007. Daniels and her team later developed a line of Moodsters products, including toys and books, that were sold at Target and other retailers beginning in 2015. Throughout this time, Daniels pitched The Moodsters to numerous media and entertainment companies, including numerous pitches to and contacts with Disney and Pixar from 2005 to 2009. The names, physical characteristics, attributes, and behaviors of The Moodsters went through significant changes through the years.
Disney began development of Inside Out in 2010 and released the movie in 2015. The story line centers around five anthropomorphized emotions that live inside of an 11-year-old girl, and the director and co-writer of the movie stated that the emotions of his 11-year-old daughter provided the inspiration for the movie.
Daniels filed suit against Disney for breach of an implied-in-fact contract and later added copyright infringement claims. See id. at 770. This article will not address the implied-in-fact contract claims. Disney responded with a Motion to Dismiss the copyright claims, which the district court granted on the grounds that The Moodsters were not protectable by copyright. See id. at 771.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit evaluated whether The Moodsters were entitled to copyright protection. “A character is entitled to copyright protection if (1) the character has ‘physical as well as conceptual qualities,’ (2) the character is ‘sufficiently delineated to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears’ and ‘display[s] consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes,’ and (3) the character is ‘especially distinctive’ and ‘contain[s] some unique elements of expression.’” See id. at 771 (citing DC Comics v. Towle, 802 F.3d 1012, 1019 (9th Cir. 2015)). Disney did not dispute that The Moodsters met the first prong of this test but argued that analysis under the second and third prong required dismissal of the copyright claims.
Initially, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court that simply using a color to represent a mood or emotion is an idea that is not protectable under copyright law. See id. at 772. And when determining whether the characters were “sufficiently delineated” and maintained “consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes,” the Court focused on the fact that the physical appearances and most of the character traits changed significantly over time. See id. The Moodsters transitioned from insect-like characters to lovable bears, and from characters defined by their emotions to “mood detectives.” See id. at 772-773. Further, in each iteration of The Moodsters, the names of the characters changed. See id. at 773. The Moodsters failed under the second prong because each character lacked “identifiable and consistent character traits across iterations” of the characters. See id.
The Moodsters also fell short under the third prong because they were not “especially distinctive” and lacked “unique elements of expression.” See id. The Moodsters had generic attributes and traits, and each character changed names three times. The fact that each anthropomorphized character represented a specific emotion was insufficient to satisfy this prong as well. See id.
The Ninth Circuit further analyzed whether The Moodsters could obtain copyright protection under the “story being told” doctrine. See id. at 774. Under this legal test, a character may obtain copyright protection if that character constitutes “the story being told” or dominates the story so much that it becomes “essentially a character study.” See id. (citing Warner Bros. Pictures v. Columbia Broad. Sys., 216 F.2d 945, 950 (9th Cir. 1954)). The Court ruled that neither the Bible nor the pilot episode sufficiently developed the characters to meet this threshold of copyright protection.
Despite clear knowledge of Daniels and her creation of The Moodsters, Disney was able to escape copyright infringement because The Moodsters failed to qualify for copyright protection. The significant changes of the characters throughout time proved detrimental to her copyright claims, and the general idea of using a color to represent a mood is unprotectable as an idea. Thus, even if Disney developed the story for Inside Out with assistance from the disclosures by Daniels, her copyright infringement claims were unable to survive.
The Opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit can be found here: OPINION
Dustin Mauck focuses his practice on intellectual property and technology disputes, counseling, and licensing.
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