Animation Case Highlights Distinction Between Copyright and Trademark

Back in September of this year, a case came to prominence in the UK whereby Disney threatened to sue independent studio, Brightspark over their strikingly familiar animated films. Take a look at the images below from the 1709 Blog (a really great copyright resource):

There’s plenty of similarity isn’t there? One might be tempted to think that there was some sort of copyright infringement going on. However this case is special because it throws up the devilishly tricky line that is the distinction between copyright and trademark.

You see, Brightspark didn’t simply knock out a film in a similar vein to Pixar’s Brave. Nope that would have been too difficult given the time constraints. Instead, they simply took one of their films that was already made, and being sold even, called ‘A Fairy Tale Christmas’ and re-branded it as ‘Braver’. This wasn’t the first time they had pulled such a stunt either. ‘Tangled Up’ was previously released as ‘Britannica’s Fairy Tales from Around the World’.

So what exactly did Disney sue for? Can you guess?

If you said copyright infringement, you’d be right. if you said trademarks, you’d also be right. Huh? I hear you say, aren’t they both mutually exclusive? Well yes, they are. However in this case, Brightspark made the critical mistake of trying to hit two artistic birds with one stone.

Copyright covers artistic and creative works. Insofar as films are concerned, the title cannot be copyrighted. It can, however, be trademarked. Brightspark went one further though and made covers that also bore a bit more than a passing similarity to their more famous inspiration.

According to Wikipedia, a trademark “is typically a name, word, phrase, logo, symbol, design, image, or a combination of these elements.” So in the context of Disney’s films, the trademark would not only cover the film title itself but would also extend to the title design as well. Ever wonder why studios have a propensity to use custom typefaces for their titles? Now you know why; they get double protection.

With a fairly solid trademark case (dilution of brand, etc.), Disney also aimed for the jugular and sued for copyright infringement, most likely over the title design as well as the covers themselves.

Long story short, Brightspark lost the case and this week, was ordered to stop producing the offending titles and destroy any remaining stock.

Why is this case important? Well there are no shortage of small studios willing to feed off the success of a major film. Chop Kick Panda is probably the more blatant recent example but in that case, the studio made a solid effort to distinguish their product just enough to make it legally distinct. This included a similar, but different title and a wholly distinct cover design for the DVD, not to mention the story. At best, consumer ignorance would be to blame for any parent picking that film up, something the studio no doubt relies on for sales.

Brightspark simply tried their hand and strayed a bit too close to the chalk to get away clean for which they are now paying the price. It’s just yet another example of how one needs to be aware of the legal rules in the entertainment game.

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