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Lawsuits are nothing new for Disney

Sunday, July 02, 2000

By Michael D. Sallah, The Toledo Blade

Walt Disney Co. is one of the world's most recognized entertainment corporations, boasting a legacy of films and theme parks. But like many companies, Disney has been challenged over the years by artists and producers who claim their works have been used without their permission by Disney designers and writers.

So far, no suit had been filed by the family of the late Robert Jaffray, who claim that he showed the company a design that mirrored Epcot Center years before Disney created the Florida theme park.

John Stemberger, lawyer for the family, said last week that unless Disney can help the family uncover the truth, the family may decide to file a civil action.

"We want to see their creative metamorphosis," he said in May, adding that the Jaffray plan was filed with the U.S. copyright office in 1956. Specifically, he said he wants to see the drawings before 1963, "if they even existed then," and the critical years between 1975 and 1979 when the final versions of Epcot were drawn in Glendale, Calif.

"If the original Disney renderings prove to be entirely self-contained and created completely apart from the influence of Miniature Worlds, then this verification will be of great assistance to our legal team in recommending an appropriate course of action for the future," he wrote.

The family asked Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman and CEO, to acknowledge Jaffray's contributions with a statue in Epcot.

Some cases have been successfully defended by Disney, and others have led to jury awards or settlements with artists. One case, involving "The Lion King," has been debated for years but never went to court.

Here's a sampling:

In 1993, television director Paul Alter was awarded $300,000 in damages by a California jury stemming from a lawsuit over the origins of the hit movie, "Honey, I Blew Up The Kids."

In the suit, Alter, longtime director of "The Price Is Right," argued that he sent a story idea in 1980 to the company about a toddler who becomes a giant because of a genetic mishap. Thirteen years later, Disney released the movie "Honey, I Blew Up The Kids," about a child who grows to huge proportions because of a genetic mishap.

The jury was asked to consider a total of 17 similarities, including having the villain at the lab try to shoot the toddler down with missiles and having the father work feverishly to try to shrink the child to normal size.

Before suing, Alter asked the company for a letter of apology, but Disney refused, according to the book "Disney, The Mouse Betrayed." After a brief trial, the director was awarded damages.

Disney successfully defended its 1992 movie "Sister Act," starring Whoopi Goldberg, from a copyright claim made three years ago.

A company owned by actress Donna Douglas and Curt Wilson alleged in a lawsuit that the movie was lifted from another screenplay years earlier. The suit claimed that there were up to 100 similarities between the movie and screenplay.

But a federal jury in Los Angeles rejected the claim, saying there were not enough similarities to prove a copyright infringement. The decision was upheld on appeal.

In another case in 1997, Carl Person argued that Disney took the idea for the 1994 animated television show "Gargoyles" from New York artist Joe Tomasini.

But a federal district judge in New York threw out the case, saying it did not establish that Disney had access to the artist's creation.

Disney settled a dispute with former employee Daryan Faeroe in 1996 after he said he came up with an idea for pixie dust, according to published reports.

Faeroe said he submitted an idea for bottling pixie dust and selling it as a souvenir. The dust was made famous by Tinker Bell in the "Peter Pan" story. Faeroe met with Disney representatives to tell them about his idea, but it was rejected. Several months later, Disney began selling pixie dust in its catalog.

Faeroe approached the company, and Disney offered $10,000 for the trademark rights. But he asked for $15,000, and the company refused.

Disney then sued Faeroe in state court in Florida, saying he and his lawyer accepted a $10,000 settlement. Faeroe denied the claim, and a judge ruled in his favor. On appeal, Disney lost again.

The company settled with Faeroe for an undisclosed amount.

Though the Disney animated movie "The Lion King" never resulted in a lawsuit, the company's most successful movie enraged several California animators and producers when the movie was released in 1994.

One of those producers was Fred Ladd, a noted animation director and screenwriter, who with others claimed that "The Lion King" was taken from the movie "Kimba the White Lion," which Ladd produced in this country in the mid-1960s after its release in Japan.

In both stories:

1. The wise lion king is killed, and the young prince is forced to leave home.

2. The young prince returns home, only to find that the throne is now occupied by a tough, elderly lion with a scar over one eye.

3. An elderly baboon becomes the prince's mentor.

4. The young lion is Kimba; the young lion in "The Lion King" is Simba.

5. The older, evil lion in "Lion King" is Scar; the older, evil lion in "Kimba" is Claw.

6. In both movies, the young prince sees images of his father in the sky.

Disney never gave credit to the creator of "Kimba" or the producer. In fact, the company denies any knowledge of "Kimba."

That's what infuriates Ladd, a longtime member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "I honestly don't know how they can call it a coincidence," he said.

He said the Japanese studio, Mushi, which produced "Kimba" in that country, declined to file a lawsuit against Disney.

He said the head of the studio, Takayuki Matsutani, believed the creator of "Kimba," the late legendary cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, would not have wanted to sue because of the deep respect he held for the founder of the company, Walt Disney, who died years before "Lion King" was made. "They are not litigious people," said Ladd. "They just let it go."

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