Certain kinds of copyright infringement are clear. If someone uses your logo without permission, passes off your artwork as their own, or releases your book with their name attached instead of yours, then the legal status is straightforward. Theft is theft. However, other cases are less clear. A Canadian film director, Damon Pourshain, is currently suing Disney/Pixar over alleged copyright infringement regarding the film “Inside Out,” which won the 2016 Oscars for Best Animated Film and Best Original Screenplay. Mr. Pourshain alleges that Disney/Pixar copied distinct elements from his short film of the same name, which released in 2000. His case cuts to the heart of the burden of proof in copyright law.
What A Plaintiff Must Show
In cases where someone alleges that another party infringed copyright not through direct theft, but by creating a similar work based on the original, the burden is on the plaintiff to show two things:
- The defendant had access to the original work when creating the infringing work.
- The two works bear such striking similarity to one another that copying is the only plausible explanation.
To establish access, a plaintiff must show a reasonable chain of events by which the defendant could have seen or otherwise been exposed to the original work. Striking similarity can be a higher bar, as it’s much more subjective. Something that’s often pointed to in these cases is errors or imperfections that the two works have in common that defy probability. Failing that, other unique or complex similarities can suffice.
An important thing to note is that this kind of copyright infringement need not be intentional. Even if it the defendant didn’t mean to copy the original work, the above standard can show that it happened anyway and that the plaintiff deserves damages.
Claim: Striking Similarity
Mr. Pourshain attended Sheridan College in the late 90s, where he wrote a script for a short film called “Inside Out,” which he later filmed and showed on campus. Beyond the identical titles -- which can’t be copyrighted, ironically -- he alleges dozens of other similarities between the two films, including overall theme, the use of an ensemble of personified characters to represent a child’s inner life, and specific common visual details.
He also claims that when Disney/Pixar released their movie, he received communications from old classmates who’d seen his short film and remarked upon the incredible similarities between the two.
Mr. Pourshain also claims that there is a direct path from Sheridan to Pixar by which Pixar creatives could have known about his short film. Several of his classmates from Sheridan went to work at Pixar and were in fact credited on the Disney/Pixar film. Moreover, he claims that Sheridan faculty worked closely with Pixar at the time, creating a de facto recruitment avenue from the classroom to Disney/Pixar animation studios.
Disney/Pixar has successfully defended itself against infringement lawsuits involving “Inside Out” in the past, so the courts will have the final word on whether Mr. Pourshain’s case is convincing. However, it demonstrates the high bar that creators must clear in cases involving derivative works. Winning these cases requires experienced legal counsel and a systematic analysis of the works in question. Anything less simply won’t do.