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Life Is a Copyrighted Highway

March 22, 2011

The first US copyright law extended legal protection to “the author and authors of any map, chart, book or books already printed within these United States.” A work had to be completed before any copyright was recognized. Nor did the original law address any “derivative” works that might later emerge with some basis in the copyrighted work.

Two centuries later the copyright mentality is less concrete. Now there are unknown “authors” who claim the right to censor works that are, at best, tangentially related to some half-formed idea that was never completed much less published. But thanks to the generous American litigation process, such unrecognized “creators” can at least inconvenience the genuinely productive authors with nonsensical lawsuits.

Two years ago I blogged a story, as told by David A. Price, about a failed attempt to stop the release of the Disney-Pixar film Monsters, Inc. A woman claimed the film’s premise — a world where monsters were real, but they were more afraid of children than vice-versa — was “stolen” from an unpublished short story she’d submitted to several publishers without success. She imagined that one of the publishers somehow passed the story along to Pixar, and as a result she was somehow the “real” author of the movie — which she demanded a judge prevent the release of. The judge declined, noting her claims were so broad that if upheld they would be “chilling to the free flow of children’s stories, and could mean that many a child’s bad dream would be a copyright infringement.”

Perhaps stealing — no pun intended — from this woman’s story, another would-be author has stepped forward to claim he was the victim of theft by Disney and Pixar. Last week a British man named Jake Mandeville-Anthony filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court demanding an injunction to stop the planned June release of the Disney-Pixar film Cars 2. Mandeville-Anthony claims the film, and its aptly named predecessor Cars, violated his exclusive right to the idea of “a series of motion pictures or a television series/mini-series featuring cartoon cars characters.” Although the first Cars was released five years ago, Mandeville-Anthony apparently waited until now to complain.

In Cars, featuring a world populated entirely by sentient vehicles with no humans, a race car named Lightning McQueen gets trapped in a small town on Route 66 while traveling to a championship race in California. The sequel reportedly features McQueen traveling around the world as part of a “grand prix” series. Director John Lasseter said the original story was inspired by his own love of cars — his father worked in the industry — and a family vacation where he partially traveled Route 66. Indeed, the film’s working title was “Route 66,” but it was changed to avoid confusion with the 1960s television series of the same name.

Mandeville-Anthony claims two of his unpublished works were the real source of Lasseter’s films. The first, a screenplay called “Cookie & Me,” was adapted from the story of two real-life human race car drivers who participated in an endurance race in the 1980s. The second, which he called “Cars,” included a “sample screenplay, synopses, 46 animated cars characters descriptions, 10 cars characters sketches, and a marketing/merchandising plan.” Mandeville-Anthony claims his “Cars” concept included the “novel element” of “anthropomorphic [cars] with no drivers and, in fact, without humans or reference to humans anywhere in the story as characters.” Mandeville-Anthony also said one of his “suggested plots” involved a race on Route 66. (Although Cars largely takes place in a Route 66 town, there is no actual race on the road itself.)

In his complaint, Mandeville-Anthony lists a number of his proposed characters in an attempt to show that Lasseter and his crew “stole” his ideas. Mandeville-Anthony asserts that Lightning McQueen is just “an American version of” his proposed lead character, “James Aston-Martin” — even though, in the same sentence, Mandeville-Anthony acknowledges his character was based on James Bond while Lasseter partially based his lead on actor Steve McQueen. (Funny how Mandeville-Anthony claims copyright infringement when he admits his main character is blatantly ripped off from another copyrighted fictional character, Ian Fleming’s James Bond.)

The other character-by-character comparisons Mandeville-Anthony presents amount to little more than claiming ownership over basic archetypes. For example, he claims the Cars character of Doc Hudson is stolen from his proposed character, “Dr. Damien Daimler,” because they are both doctors and “authority figures.”

Leaving aside the merits of Mandeville-Anthony’s infringement claims, there’s also the matter of his suggested timeline. Mandeville-Anthony never, by his own admission, presented his ideas to Pixar or Lasseter. Yet he claims “breach of implied-in-fact contract” based on two things. First, between 1994 and 1996 he sent his various proposals, unsolicited, ”to various production companies and movie studios via mail,” including the script department at Walt Disney. He also claims that in January 1993 he “met in person and personally delivered” his proposals to a Lucasfilm executive named Jim Morris.

From here Mandeville-Anthony draws a number of inferences. Before establishing itself as an independent company in 1986 under Steve Jobs, Pixar was the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm. John Lasseter worked in that department. And Jim Morris later joined Pixar, where he is currently the general manager. Disney later acquired Pixar. So, if we follow the trail, Lasseter either gained access to Mandeville-Anthony’s work through Morris or Disney and passed it off as his own original idea.

There’s a ton of holes here. By Mandeville-Anthony’s own account, Morris didn’t start working at Lucasfilm until 1987 — after Lasseter left with the rest of the computer graphics division to form Pixar. Morris also didn’t join Pixar until 2005; Cars had been in production since at least 2001.

As for Disney, Mandeville-Anthony seems to think his unsolicited proposals sat in the company’s script department until one day they were magically discovered by Lasseter. While Disney now owns Pixar and Lasseter is a senior executive at both studios, that did not take place until 2006. Mandeville-Anthony sent his first unsolicited proposal to Disney in 1994.

It’s unlikely anyone at Disney ever read Mandeville-Anthony’s proposals. Studios generally don’t review unsolicited manuscripts precisely because they want to avoid situations like this, where someone comes along after-the-fact and claims they were the “real” author of a particular story or story concept. Even Mandeville-Anthony’s description of meeting Jim Morris in 1993 sounds like a case where Mandeville-Anthony walked up to Morris, unprompted and unsolicited, and handed him some papers. There’s nothing in Mandeville-Anthony’s complaint that even hints he had an actual meeting with any studio about his proposals.

Yet now he claims to be grievously injured because Disney-Pixar “violated [his] exclusive rights of preparing derivative works based upon” his “copyrighted” proposals. The only remedy, he claims, is for the courts to censor Cars 2 and prevent the public from viewing it — unless, of course, Disney-Pixar “licenses” the rights from him.

What’s fascinating about all this is that it shows how copyright perverts the concept of “authorship.” Let’s assume Mandeville-Anthony is right: Either Jim Morris gave John Lasseter the original concept drawings and proposals he received from Mandeville-Anthony, or Lasseter found the proposals sitting in some Disney vault. Lasseter decided this was a terrific idea and decided to appropriate it for himself. Did he really “steal” anything?

Of course not. Mandeville-Anthony did not present anything resembling a finished, published product. All he had were some concept drawings of cars, some basic story lines, and a sample script based on a completely unrelated real-life event. None of this adds up to a marketable film.

In contrast, John Lasseter was already a well established director with three commercially successful films to his credit. As the creative head of Pixar, he had access to the physical and human resources necessary to develop the “talking cars” concept into a finished product. An animated film requires hundreds of people and thousands of man-hours, including story development, design, animation, shot development, post-production, marketing, etc. It’s one thing for Mandeville-Anthony to present a bunch of car sketches and claims he “owns” the characters based on them. It’s quite another to actually create the characters — which requires not just making a cute drawing, but developing a 3D computer model, hiring and recording a voice actor, and having a team of animators bring it all together.

Perhaps there’s a writer’s conceit born of American copyright’s 18th century origins. In an era where creative works primarily existed in pen-and-paper form, the writer was indeed supreme master and commander. But in the age of 3D visual entertainment, authorship and creation are much broader conceits. One writer working alone does not create a film; at best he gets the ball rolling. But it’s ludicrous to claim “ownership” based merely on proposing an initial concept that, after years of hard work by others, emerges as a successful commercial product. Mandeville-Anthony didn’t pay for the production of Cars or Cars 2; he didn’t gather the resources necessary to produce either film; and he didn’t assume any of the financial or creative risks necessary to bring the films to consumers. So why should he now have the “right” to censor the works of others or demand they pay him a ransom for the use of their own property?

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