Studios ‘Stealing’ Ideas and Why Animators Need to Know Their Rights


This morning, I read over on AWN that some guy, by the name of Terence Dunn, is suing DreamWorks for stealing his idea for Kung Fu Panda. Although everything is still at an early stage, this could shape up to be an interesting fight.

This is, of course, the worst fear of many animators, they pitch an idea to a network or studio, get turned around, and then just like that, see a project that’s eerily similar to their own being announced.

My recent post neglected to mention this whole area of copyright law as I regretfully forgot about it. Basically, you cannot copyright an idea, only actual creations. If you come up with the idea to make a show about, oh, I don’t know, an Octopus Pirate, then you can’t simply go around suing everyone if they come up with a show about a pirate who’s also an octopus.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t defend your legal rights, if someone misappropriates your idea, you are certainly entitled to seek compensation. The point is that it is possible to be over-zealous. Think back to the lawsuit from a few years ago regarding SpongeBob Squarepants. Some guy (who has a Wikipedia page?) sued Viacom for stealing his idea for a talking sponge.

The guy’s argument was that in 1991, he created and flogged some sponges with a markered on face. If only he had read Jerry Beck’s excellent Nicktoons book, he would have noticed a comic, drawn by Stephen Hillenberg and featuring a character called Bob the Sponge that was dated 1989. It’s too bad that tons of court time were wasted on a frivolous lawsuit like this although I’m sure some lawyers somewhere are quite happy about the whole ordeal.

In a lawsuit such as the one mentioned at the beginning, the discovery phase will help uncover any and all information that both sides will need in order to build a case. For Dunn, it will hinge on whether or not his idea passes a series of tests that will determine whether or not his concept could be considered the same as Kung Fu Panda. Things such as the plot, character descriptions, design, tone of the story and so forth will be scrutinized in microscopic detail. In addition, the full details of any and all meetings with DreamWorks staff will be similarly torn apart in the quest for the proof needed.

Does the guys suit have merit? Perhaps, it’s still way to early to tell. The reason it’s in the news today is that the court has ruled that Dunn can look at DreamWorks books in order to determine how much he could be owed in damages. This is a bit of a silly move because, at least in my mind, what he is owed should not be motivating him at this stage of the lawsuit if he is truly in the belief that his idea was stolen. It should be blatantly obvious to everyone that Kung Fu Panda was a successful film (with 6 more announced?!) and there should be no doubt in his or anyone else’s mind that should he win, he would be in line for a substantial payout.

There is a good chance that DreamWorks will settle, especially if it looks like they will lose. As in most cases like this, it is much cheaper for them to offer the guy a certain (not unsubstantial) amount that puts everything to rest and allows things to carry on much as they did before.

It’s important to remember that situations such as this are extremely rare. Studios and networks are well aware of the potential for crippling damages if they are shown to have blatantly ripped off some-one’s idea, as a result, they are much more inclined (and motivated) to either acquire the original idea and develop it themselves, or take the basic concept (a kung fu panda) and turn it into their own creation.

Like I said at the beginning, you cannot copyright an idea (yet), only actual creative work. Lawsuits such as those mentioned above are all the more reason for animators to familiarize themselves with copyright law and what rights and limitations are set out within.

2 Comments on “Studios ‘Stealing’ Ideas and Why Animators Need to Know Their Rights

  1. Call me an idealist, but I think this is one of the many reasons why modern business platforms are heavily protected and disguised failures.

    People arriving at the same conclusion at the same time has been going on since the dawn of time. Consider the cave paintings of Lascaux vs. the cave paintings of Altamira – two countries that, during primitive times had NO means of communicating with each other, and yet, the drawing style on these cave walls – and furthermore the idea to even draw on cave walls, was shared by inhabitants of both counties.

    Another example: pyramids vs. ziggurats, and correct me if I’m wrong, but Ancient Egyptians didn’t go around suing Mesopotamia.

    Whether or not someone blatantly ripped off an idea is so hard to prove, in my opinion. At the last ASIFA Animation Festival (the one on Mother’s Day) I watched as my boyfriend, Rob writhed in his seat when the film about the guy who sneezed himself inside out came on, because for the past 4 years Rob was working on a independent series called Donny No Skins which actually picked up an Internet following.

    We considered that maybe the creator saw the series on youTube, but we concluded that whether or not he did, it’s not like Rob owns the idea.

    The idea of ownership doesn’t sit well with me anyway. But that I’ll save for another rant.

    As a member of the general public we are fed the same stories, fed the same shows, fed the same food, endure the same climate changes, endure the same social changes, etc. That we share a collective intelligence makes perfect sense.

    I think the REAL problem is not theft of ideas, but the unfair, unbalanced inability for everyone to actively pursue their ideas, to allow their ideas to grow. Of course a company can make the best Kung Fu Panda, but could a wee little person do it as well on their down time between a job, kids, doctors appointments, paying bills, grocery shopping, doing laundry etc? Not likely.

    I have two uber utopian solutions:

    1) You know how politicians “hold office” for “terms”? And in Israel, all teenagers are required to have military training? I think it would be beneficial – if even for just a few years of life (perhaps prior to college, and post high school) for everyone to spend 2-4 years rotating entry level occupational positions, that way everyone learns to respect everyone’s role in society and everyone has a better understanding of what they like and thereby make better decisions in regards to what to major in.

    2) You know how you can go to the library to borrow books? And how in schools there are computer labs stocked with the best equipment and software? Why aren’t there a plethora of these accessible to the public? Why should only the rich (or people in debt) get to touch a Mac Pro?

    Anyway that’s my bit for the day. ::tips non-existent hat and exits::

    • Wow, another great comment Careese 🙂

      I think it’s not so much that people are unable to pursue their ideas, it’s just that they sometimes have tunnel vision when it comes to how those dreams should be realised. For example, many folks think that only Hollywood can make a movie, which isn’t necessarily the case. Nina Paley created and released Sita Sings the Blues without any major (or indeed, any) studio backing her. She has so far been critically lauded for her work and it continues to find new audiences years after it was first released.

      The same goes for almost anything else. If you want something badly enough, you need to do the research and know what you to do in order to achieve the goals. Going off half-cocked is unlikely to get you anywhere and will likely only lead to frustration. I know myself, there have been times when things haven’t gone my way, but more often than not, i analyse the situation and either try again or head off in a completely new direction, with surprising results!

      Just two wee notes on your solutions:

      1.) It’ll never happen. Economics stands in the way. The reason the US army draft was eliminated was because the economic loss of a college graduate entering the military greatly (and we’re talking potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars per person here) overshadows the cost of recruiting volunteers. I’ve often thought a similar setup to Israel’s would be a good thing for the country as a whole, but the economic disruption and resulting costs are unlikely to see the draft or any form of ‘national service’ being instated any time soon.

      2.) Again, it’s economics 9and maybe politics). If there is a compelling reason for such facilities to be available, then they will be made available. That’s why libraries have computers, because some bright spark (somewhere) realised that they could be a social benefit if libraries had them. As for why they aren’t Apples, it’s pretty obvious that a library would rather buy 5 PC for the same cost as 1 Mac. Why the two aren’t the same price? You’ll have to ask Steve Jobs that question.

      It’s not something to be dismayed about. Again, if you want to achieve a goal, there’s always more than one road open to you. They may require a bit of research or some additional time to accomplish, but the results should be the same, and you’ll be a much stronger person because of your experiences. 🙂

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