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"Animation is Built On Plagiarism…"


Jeffrey Tucker writes below regarding intellectual property-dominated markets,

Authors, artists, and inventors sit and brood about the need to keep their wares to themselves, and hunt out anyone who would dare “steal” their idea. In the successful cases, they can end up rewarding themselves but at the expense of social development.

In the far more prevalent unsuccessful cases, the obsession with being ripped off leads to brooding, resentment, and disgruntlement that the world has failed to provide them a living. A sector consisting of nothing but people like this–with an attitude encouraged in law–is stagnant. By way of illustration, compare the imitation-oriented jazz and rock sectors with the IP-obsessed area of serious classical music!

Consider, for example, the cases or Lori Madrid and Stanley Miller. Both filed lawsuits against The Walt Disney Company and Pixar Animation Studios over the latter’s 2001 film, Monsters, Inc. Author David A. Price described the cases in his 2008 book, The Pixar Touch, which contains many interesting anecdotes about the effect of IP on the creative enterprise.Madrid’s lawsuit, according to Price, revolved around a short story she’d written in 1999, “There’s a Boy in My Closet,” and submitted to various publishers. When Madrid didn’t hear back from any of the publishers, she turned the story into a musical that was produced in her native Wyoming. Price wrote that friends of Madrid, after seeing the musical, pointed out the basic idea of her story – the monster hiding in the closet was more afraid of the human child then vice versa – was also the basis for Monsters, Inc., which Disney was then advertising in advance of a fall release:

[Madrid's friends] told her that the film was plainly based on her story. Pixar must have gotten a hold of your work, they told her earnestly. Pixar stole from you.

Madrid saw the trailer herself during Labor Day weekend and reached the same conclusion. “I realized I was looking up at a movie screen and seeing my manuscript in living color,” she recalled later. “Except that it didn’t have my name on it. The closet, the child, the monster, the expressions, the scene – the total feel of the story was just like my creation.”

She was distressed. Who would ever produce her musical now? Everyone would assume she had copied from the film.

Madrid’s lawsuit relied heavily on her own imagination. She believed that one of the publishers that rejected her 1999 manuscript had passed the story on to Pixar in exchange for receiving a book deal with the studio. There was no evidence of this, but as Price wrote, Madrid’s lawyers could still deploy “the doomsday weapon of copyright litigation” – an injunction against releasing the film at all. One day before the scheduled release date, a federal judge held a hearing on the injunction request, which was denied. The judge noted, among other reasons, that his law clerk “has a couple of nieces, two and seven, that would be very upset if I issued this injunction . . . I suspect there are a lot of little kids all over the country that would regard me as the worst kind of judicial monster if I were to do it.”

The lawsuit itself was later dismissed by the same judge, who said both the film and Madrid’s story relied on common themes and ideas not protectable by copyright: “All of these ideas are standard and indispensable with these characters, and with children’s stories in general. To say that such things may be protected by copyright laws would . . . certainly 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.”

A year after Monsters, Inc. was released, a second lawsuit was filed, this time by Stanley Miller, a longtime professional artist and illustrator. Miler said Pixar infringed upon a sample script and artwork he’d developed in 1997 that involved two stock “monster” characters that he’d developed in the 1960s. Some Pixar artists were apparently familiar with Miller’s earlier artwork, but as Price wrote, such influence and emulation is commonplace in animation:

Anyone making an animated film about monsters would likely be influenced by other artists whose work they admired and who had created interesting depictions of monsters. In art and drama, as in other endeavors, rarely was there anything completely new under the sun. Shakespeare famously drew from the Greek writer Plutarch for his Roman tragedies.

At Pixar in particular, looking at the approaches of other artists was part of the culture that [Pixar Chief Creative Officer John] Lasseter had instilled from the beginning. Both before and after Monsters, Inc., Pixar’s films showed clear cinematic and literary influences – some large, some small – to which few would object. Lasseter often spoke of [Japanese animation director] Hayao Miyazaki’s influence on his work. The Toy Story team drew inspiration from popular American buddy films. Toy Story [directed by Lasseter] shared its fundamental premise (the toys come alive when no one is looking) and some plot points (a toy that doesn’t know it’s a toy arrives as a birthday present, goes missing, and must be rescued) with 1977′s Raggedy Ann and Andy, a film directed by Lasseter’s onetime boss Richard Williams.

“Art was never created in a vacuum chamber,” Price wrote, but IP law requires clear delineations between “fair use” and “misappropriation.” Defining the line proved somewhat silly. Disney and Pixar called an expert witness – an English literature professor who “was hired to research and compose a report on one eyed monsters throughout human history.” Miller’s attorney called his own expert, an animation professor, who claimed that the particular one-eyed monster in dispute had a “design and personality” that “must not only have been inspired by, but must have been directly copied from” one of Miller’s designs. The case was ultimately settled under undisclosed terms.

Coincidentally – or perhaps it was ex ante infringement of Price’s book – a 1996 episode of “The Simpsons” depicted a similar case of animation-copyrights-run-amok. In “The Day the Violence Died,” a street bum sues the producers of the “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon series (which emulates “Tom & Jerry”), claiming that he invented the character of “Itchy,” a sociopathic mouse. The bum produced a 1919 film with the character, but a rival animator lifted Itchy for his own 1928 cartoon, “Steamboat Itchy” (which is almost a shot-for-shot emulation of the Disney cartoon, “Steamboat Willie”). The rival animator became rich and famous – while the bum, of course, became a bum.

The Springfield courts ruled in favor of the bum and awarded him $800 billion in damages – which the judge acknowledged “will probably come down a bit on appeal” – putting the Itchy & Scratchy studio out of business. The studio later reopened, however, after discovering the U.S. Postal Service’s “Mr. ZIP” character “must not only have been inspired by, but must have been directly copied from” a long-forgotten stick-figure character owned by Itchy & Scratchy called “Manic Mailman”. The Postal Service gave I&S “a huge cash settlement,” allowing them to resume producing cartoons (while paying even more royalties to the bum.)

As fictional I&S studio boss Roger Meyers, Jr., acknowledged during the copyright infringement trial, “animation is built on plagiarism,” echoing Price’s explanation of Pixar’s creative process: “If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing the Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have the Flintstones. If someone hadn’t ripped off Sgt. Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat. Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear? Hah! Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney! Your honor, you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from?”

Ideas, of course, cannot be stolen. They can only be emulated, and as Jeffrey Tucker wrote, “emulation is unavoidable. There is no such thing as absolute originality. Everything in a growing and health society is an elaboration on something else that already exists.”

Skip Oliva is a writer and paralegal in Virginia (skip@skipoliva.com).

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