A seasoned artist brought a rather serious lawsuit against DreamWorks Animation -- one that actually survived the studio's request for summary judgment. That fact alone made it seem like the case had some unusual merits -- and then it took an unusual twist that should be a warning sign to trademark trolls everywhere: if you're going to try to sue for the theft of your original ideas or art, make sure that you didn't steal them from somewhere else.
Suing In Hollywood For Idea Theft Isn't Easy
The reality is that a lot of people come up with ideas that are reasonably similar to each other. Chalk it up to the old saying, "great minds think alike." However, there are usually substantially dissimilar aspects between each person's unique ideas to make it hard to prove that an idea was stolen unless you can also prove the alleged idea thief actually had access to your work. Those are some pretty high hurdles to leap.
However, the Kung-Fu Panda lawsuit that was haunting DreamWorks seemed to do backflips right over those hurdles. The artist insisted that the idea behind the patented Kung-Fu Panda franchise was his -- and he got a court to take him seriously enough to let the case move forward. That is unusual in an industry that regularly faces challenges to its intellectual property rights from artists who are convinced their work was stolen.
Suing Over A Fraudulent Claim Of Idea Theft Can Land You In Jail
Suddenly, the case was dropped. The plaintiff, who had offered to settle for around $12 million plus a tiny percentage of all future Kung-Fu Panda royalties, suddenly withdrew his claim with prejudice -- meaning that he can never bring the allegations of theft for that idea against the studio giant again.
Was this a case of a studio giant strongarming the little guy? Not at all. It was a case of the studio's team of attorneys doing their due diligence for their client and digging up the source of some of the complaining artist's inspiration. They discovered some pretty clear evidence that the artist's idea for a martial-artist Panda with a smaller red panda sidekick came from a tracing he did directly from a 1996 coloring book. The artist made a few changes to the characters in the tracing in 2000 and registered the work as his own.
The case might have died there, even though DreamWorks was out around $3 million in legal fees, except a federal prosecutor decided to file criminal charges based on the idea that the artist's claims constituted copyright fraud. Prosecutors wanted a five-year sentence to deter others from making claims that they hope will make a few quick bucks. In the end, questions about the artist's mental health led the judge to sentence him to two years in a prison psychiatric facility.
One of the best things that anyone -- from individual artist to major company -- can do to protect themselves in cases involving intellectual property theft is to make certain that they're completely honest with their attorney about where all their ideas come from. Keeping a record of the creative process and holding onto early drafts -- something that was an issue in this case -- can also be important.
For more advice on how to protect your intellectual property rights, talk to a trademark and patent attorney.