Two writers and a producer accused Disney of copying themes, settings, plot, characters and dialogue from a screenplay they sent to Disney in 2000. But there were fundamental differences between their screenplay and the movies, and similarities were common to pirate stories or generic concepts that aren’t protected under copyright law, the court ruled in granting Disney’s motion to dismiss the complaint.
The May 13 opinion demonstrates that copyright infringement lawsuits can fail at the early stages of a case if the judge finds the two works aren’t substantially similar.
Producer Tova Laiter sent Disney a screenplay written by Arthur Lee Alfred II and Ezequiel Martinez Jr., along with some artwork and a pitch reel, in 2000, according to their 2017 complaint. Disney declined to buy the screenplay. The first movie of the five-film franchise, The Curse of the Black Pearl, debuted in 2003.
The writers and Laiter said the movies, like the screenplay, diverged from the traditional canon by portraying pirates as humorous, good men rather than terrifying brutes. They also claimed both works featured supernatural cursed, skull-faced pirates, and that actor Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow character was substantially similar to the screenplay’s Davy Jones.
But the “single purported similarity” between the widely varying plots—cursed pirates—was an idea that flows naturally from a basic plot premise and therefore unprotectable, the judge said. The dark mood driven by pirate battles and sea monsters also stemmed naturally from the pirate premise, Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said.
The court dismissed comparisons between Sparrow and Jones, stating “cockiness, bravery, and drunkenness are generic, non-distinct characteristics which are not protectable.” The screenplay’s clean-shaven, ponytail- wearing Jones, who gave up pirating to raise orphans with a love interest, departed significantly from the unshaven wild-haired Sparrow who never renounces piracy or has any comparable relationships, Marshall said.
The court also discounted alleged copying of setting, dialogue and other elements as either overstated or a bid to protect the unprotectable.
“At most, plaintiffs have demonstrated random similarities scattered throughout the parties’ works,” the court said.
The Law Office of James Tam and Maceau Law Firm represented the writers. Munger Tolles and Olson LLP represented Disney.
The case is Arthur Lee Alfred II et al. v. The Walt Disney Co. et al., C.D. Cal., No. 18-8074, 5/13/19