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Canadian's copyright lawsuit against Disney, Pixar over 'Inside Out' gets green light

National Post logo National Post 2021-07-16 Joseph Brean
Damon Pourshian's statement of claim alleges that Pixar’s Joy character (bottom right) is based on his Heart character (bottom left), as both are upbeat and sentimental; Brain (top left) and Fear (top right) are both tightly wound nerdy male characters prone to panic who search through stacks of paper. © Provided by National Post Damon Pourshian's statement of claim alleges that Pixar’s Joy character (bottom right) is based on his Heart character (bottom left), as both are upbeat and sentimental; Brain (top left) and Fear (top right) are both tightly wound nerdy male characters prone to panic who search through stacks of paper.

If you were a student of animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., twenty years ago, you probably saw a 14-minute live-action low-budget student production about the internal life of a boy called Lewis and how his behaviour is controlled by five organs, each personified as a character: Brain, Stomach, Colon, Bladder and Heart.

It was called Inside Out.

Likewise, if you were young at heart in 2015, you almost certainly saw a blockbuster movie about the internal life of a girl called Riley and her personified emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, in a story about memory and moving to a new city, involving the loss of Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, in one of the most devastating animated deaths since Bambi’s mother.

Its worldwide gross for Disney was more than $850 million, plus an Oscar, and it was also called Inside Out.

Whether that coincidence is truly coincidental is at the heart of a long-running intellectual property dispute, in which the student, Damon Pourshian, has just scored a major win against Disney and its animation studio, Pixar. In short, an Ontario court has green lit his case against half a dozen Disney subsidiaries, in which a payout of millions of dollars is at stake.

Sheridan has a reputation as a major source of high-level animation talent. This week, for example, saw the release of a trailer for Turning Red , set in an animated Toronto stylized by director Domee Shi, a Torontonian Sheridan graduate who won an Oscar for her short film Bao , a meditation on Chinese Canadian motherly love and a very special dumpling.

So it is conceivable that a student project at Sheridan was on the radar of some serious American movie makers, as Pourshian alleges.

He claims Disney had access to various campus screenings of his film, which won the People’s Choice Award at an annual showcase, and that some of his classmates at the time were recruited by Disney and Pixar. His statement of claim even names four former students who worked for Pixar on Inside Out, but they are not defendants in the lawsuit.

Pourshian’s lawsuit asks the court to declare Pourshian owns copyright for the screenplay, live production and short film he made at Sheridan, and that the defendants infringed his copyright with the blockbuster movie. It seeks an injunction, financial damages, and for Pourshian’s name to be added to the movie credits.

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A similar lawsuit in California was voluntarily dismissed in 2018, two months after it was filed at the same time as the Ontario one, according to court records there.

His claim describes similarities in the plot, even down to minor details like eating cereal from a yellow carton, a teacher asking a question that puts the protagonist on the spot, eating lunch alone, and getting a kiss from mother at night.

Both movies even include a mock commercial that highlights advertising’s power over this five-person control room.

 Both films have breakfast scenes featuring yellow cereal boxes. © Damon Pourshian / Disney Both films have breakfast scenes featuring yellow cereal boxes.

These similarities “extend from the title, to overarching themes, to minute and specific details — none of which can be the result of coincidence,” reads Pourshian’s statement of claim.

His legal documents include a chart making the case that Pixar’s Joy character is based on Pourshian’s Heart, as both are upbeat and sentimental; Brain and Fear are both tightly wound nerdy male characters prone to panic; Stomach and Anger are irritable, impulsive and self-centred; Colon and Disgust protect the protagonist’s health, and Bladder and Sadness both feel ignored and of diminished importance, and “large eyewear that obscures their faces.” For Sadness it is glasses, for Bladder a scuba mask.

“It is clear that the Infringing Work (the Pixar movie) reproduces the inventive and central concept at the heart of the Original Works: the behavior and actions of the main “external” character, a school-age child, are controlled by five “internal” characters who work together and struggle against one another to help the external character navigate his or her daily life,” reads the statement of claim.

It is not always straightforward suing a foreign business in a Canadian court. Much of the legal argument turns on whether the business has a strong connection to the province in question.

Pourshian’s lawsuit initially named the Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Disney Enterprises, Disney Shopping, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and American Broadcasting Company, which distributes Pixar films on television.

Disney initially pleaded that only Disney Shopping had ever directly done business in Ontario, and said Ontario has no jurisdiction over the others.

A 2019 ruling found Ontario did in fact have jurisdiction over Pixar and Walt Disney Pictures, which produced the movie partly to offer it for viewing to Ontario moviegoers, and also Disney Shopping, but not the others.

This new decision is Pourshian’s successful appeal of that decision. Ontario’s Divisional court identified errors in that 2019 ruling. These include failing to analyze what it meant to “carry on business” in Ontario in light of previous decisions on the issue, and failing to properly explain why Pourshian had a “good arguable case” based both on his claim and on the evidence of the parties.

By different reasoning, Ontario’s Divisional Court also found Ontario has jurisdiction over Pixar and Walt Disney Pictures, but also Disney Enterprises, which owns the Inside Out copyright in Canada, and all the others.

The only entities excluded from Ontario’s jurisdiction in this latest ruling were the Walt Disney Corporation, the ultimate parent company of all the Disney properties, and the American Broadcasting Company.

Divisional Court Justice Lise Favreau also ordered the Disney defendants to pay Pourshian $25,000 in legal costs because he was “substantially” but not entirely successful on this appeal. No trial is scheduled.

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