Disney Accused of Looting (i.e. Infringing) Pirate Franchise

Copyright infringement typically involves copying someone else’s creative work. However, what happens when you copy something that was itself a copy of something you create? For example, what happens when someone creates a new website for you or your company; if the new website was based on your old website is it still infringing to loot or steal the website? Is it copyright infringement to use the new website even though it was “based” on your original work?

This issue may be visited in a recent lawsuit filed against Disney involving a movie script based on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride which was opened fifty years ago. The ride was an attraction that some still describe as “the greatest ride in Disneyland history.”

The recent copyright infringement case against Disney involves two screenwriters, Arthur Alfred II and Ezequiel Martinez, Jr., along with their producer Tova Laiter.  They filed suit against Disney for copying portions of their 1999 screenplay Pirates of the Caribbean and using them in their billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise.

The lawsuit, filed November 14, 2017, claims that Disney took the “expression of themes, settings, dialogue, characters, plot, mood and sequence of events” from the screenwriters’ screenplay. This screenplay was originally based on one of their original screenplays which was redrafted as a possible back story for Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, which has been around since 1967.

Many works such as book and movies incorporate various similar elements, such as themes or characters.  There are many books which are directed towards common themes, like pirates, natural disasters, and financial success. Just because they have similarities does not mean that one is copied from the other. For instance, your website may include a contact us page with an email and phone number, and the new version may include the same page with an email and phone number.  The fact that they have these similarities does not in and of itself indicate that one is copied from the other.  However, webpages having the same unique and creative description or layout may be more problematic.

In the recent Pirate copyright infringement lawsuit, Captain Jack Sparrow is substantially similar to a “Davey Jones” character created by the screenwriters. The Davey Jones character was a “good” pirate “with a sense of humor.” In addition, the movie uses nearly identical dialogue to the screenplay written by the screenwriters. Ultimately it will be up to the court to sort through this one, but Disney has a reputation for disregarding copyright laws and has been named in various copyright infringement suits such as Lion King, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Up, Frozen, Inside Out, and Zootopia.

If you have questions about how this case may apply to your copyright infringement situation, please contact one of our copyright attorneys today at 913.345.0900.