Icy Waters for Disney

The creator of an animated short film starring a snowman sued the Walt Disney Corporation for copyright infringement alleging Disney had access to and copied her short film in creating the trailer for Disney's highly successful movie 'Frozen.'
May 19, 2015

The creator of an animated short film, The Snowman, has sued the Walt Disney Co. for copyright infringement based on her trailer for the hugely-successful animated movie, Frozen.[1] While The Snowman and Frozen have a few similarities, such as a snowman who loses his carrot nose, the works do not have enough in common, in their entirety, to allege copyright infringement. In fact, Frozen has a completely different and more developed plot than The Snowman. However, that is irrelevant to the significance of this icy battle. Instead, Kelly Wilson, creator of The Snowman, alleges infringement only based on the trailer for Frozen, and not the entire movie. Specifically, one trailer shown for Frozen featured a snowman named Olaf who lost his carrot nose after it slid across a frozen pond, and faced losing it forever when a Reindeer also spots the carrot and is tempted by the sweet treat. In the end, the Reindeer captures the carrot but lovingly returns it to the forever grateful snowman. This sequence of events is similar to that of The Snowman, which features a snowman who loses his carrot nose, tumbles down a snowy hill, and watches as a family of rabbits chase the nose across a frozen pond. In the end, just as in Frozen, the rabbits prevail over the snowman in the race for the carrot, but ultimately return it to its rightful owner.

Nevertheless, that is where the similarities end. The tone and development of the two works do in fact have many differences as well. First, in Frozen, Olaf can speak and has similar mannerisms to that of a human, whereas in The Snowman, none of the characters are able to speak. In addition, while the rabbits in The Snowman have a meticulous plan of how to get to the carrot, the Reindeer in Frozen acts more like a puppy excitedly racing and sliding across the pond. Finally, in The Snowman, it is the snowman who first prevails in the race for the carrot, but then uses it to help the rabbits when they fall through the ice pond, leaving the carrot in the hands of the rabbit, who later returns it as a way to say thank you for saving its life. In Frozen, the Reindeer wins the race for the carrot but returns it to Olaf in a manner signifying that it wants to play fetch with the carrot. Frozen is clearly developed as a family movie with talking animals and playful instincts. On the other hand, The Snowman entails a more detailed and malevolent attack on the race for a carrot.

While one can certainly see many differences between these two works, the federal judge who sat on this case in April thought differently. Instead, the judge stated that he could not rule “as a matter of law” that Disney did not copy The Snowman.[2] In fact, the judge found that Disney might have even had access to The Snowman, thereby barring any argument of independent creation.[3] The Snowman was not only shown at multiple film festivals where employees of Pixar, a subsidiary of Disney, were also showing their works, but Wilson and her co-creator had also sent images of and references to The Snowman in job applications to Disney two years prior to the creation of the Frozen trailer.[4] Disney rebuts that while Pixar employees might have seen the work, that is not enough to show access. Instead, Disney argues, Wilson must present a specific chain of events showing that the Pixar employees communicated what they saw to the creators of Frozen.[5] Ultimately, the judge agreed with Wilson, stating that for Wilson to prevail on her claim of showing Disney’s access to the work, she only needed to show that “people involved in the creation of the trailer had enough of a connection to The Snowman that there was a reasonable possibility that they had an opportunity to view or copy it.”[6] Finding that Wilson did in fact satisfy this burden, the judge denied Disney’s motion for summary judgment, leaving this chilly dispute to be settled in court.[7]

[1] Eriq Gardner, Lawsuit Over Disney’s ‘Frozen’ Trailer Heats Up After Judge Rejects Dismissal, The Hollywood Reporter, (Jul. 31, 2014), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/lawsuit-disneys-frozen-trailer-heats-722519.

[2] Beth Winegarner, Disney Can’t Nix ‘Frozen’ Trailer Copyright Suit, Law360, (Apr. 9, 2015), http://www.law360.com/articles/641520/disney-can-t-nix-frozen-trailer-copyright-suit.

[3] See 17 U.S.C. § 102 (requiring works to be original, and in order to be original, a work cannot be copied from another); See also Fritz v. Arthur D. Little, Inc., 944 F.Supp. 95, 99 (D.Mass. 1996) (implementing the independent creation doctrine).

[4] Eriq Gardner, Disney Loses Second Attempt to Beat ‘Frozen’ Lawsuit, The Hollywood Reporter, (Apr. 17, 2015), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/disney-loses-second-attempt-beat-789593.

[5] Winegarner, supra note 2.

[6] Kelly Wilson v. The Walt Disney Company, et al., No. 14-cv-014410VC (N.D.C.A.), (order denying summary judgment), at ¶¶ 6-8.

[7] Gardner, supra note 4.

Kristina DiBenedetto is a 2L at GW Law focused on patent litigation. In her spare time, Krissy is very active and loves running, pilates, and playing basketball.