This is a guest blog by Seay Firm intern Olivia Clark, 2L at Georgia State University College of Law
Isabella Tanikumi is suing Disney for copyright infringement in New Jersey District Court. Tanikumi claims Disney’s blockbuster Frozen is not based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” but on an autobiographical novel she published four years ago.
Tanikumi will have to prove that Disney’s Frozen is substantially similar to her story in order to prove infringement and recover the whopping $250 million TMZ reports she is asking for in damages. The Third Circuit, where New Jersey is located, has followed the “substantial similarity” standard since Universal Athletic Sales Co. v. Salkeld in 1975. The court will consider 1) whether Disney has copied Tanikumi’s novel and 2) whether there is a substantial similarity between the two works. Substantial similarity exists where the ordinary person would detect a significant similarity between the two works.
According to Amazon.com’s description of Tanikumi’s book, Yearnings of the Heart, her life story includes accounts of surviving an earthquake in Huaraz, Peru, in 1970 and “conquering personal insecurities” that allowed Tanikumi to explore her intellect during the untimely death of her sister. The story further chronicles a powerful friendship, a long lost love, and problems assimilating to life in America.
While these plot points don’t sound substantially similar to the whimsical snowman or the very alive sister in Frozen, Amazon customer reviews of the novel mention how the main character loses her parents and becomes “Queen.” The substantial similarity, if any, may reside deeper in the text. Nevertheless, my prediction is that this case will be resolved quickly and without Disney forking over $250 million to Tanikumi. Disney’s lawyers will probably be able to provide ample evidence of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” as the basis for Frozen, perhaps even before publication of Tanikumi’s novel. Any connection between Yearnings of the Heart and Frozen are likely just uncopyrightable ideas of basic character and plot, like star-crossed Romeo and Juliet or unrequited love in Cyrano de Bergerac.