Ninth Circuit Boots ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Copyright Claim

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Ninth Circuit this week buried the copyright claims of an author who said Disney owes him billions of dollars in profits from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

Royce Mathew sued The Walt Disney Company and creators of the Johnny Depp-starring movies in June 2013, claiming that Disney fraudulently procured a release agreement after he withdrew an earlier copyright claim he’d filed in Florida.

Mathew claimed that Disney lifted characters, storylines and other elements from his “Supernatural Pirate” works, which included a story, video game and movie.

Mathew first sued Disney in 2005 but dropped that lawsuit after Disney showed him theme park art by artist Marc Davis that it said predated Mathew’s works. Disney said it backed up its claim that it had created a disputed supernatural story element in which a curse turns pirates into living skeletons when they are under moonlight.

Mathew sued Disney two more times, claiming in his last lawsuit that the court should rescind the release he’d signed and revive his copyright claims. He said he’d discovered new artwork by Collin Campbell in the book “The Art of Walt Disney World Resort,” and that Disney had “altered and tampered” with Campbell’s work to support its claim that it had independently created the skeletons-in-moonlight element.

He claimed that Disney had fraudulently procured the release and asked the court to rescind the agreement.

But on Tuesday the Ninth Circuit affirmed U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner’s ruling for Disney.

In a 2-1 decision, the panel found that Mathew’s four-year delay in filing the lawsuit after he discovered the Campbell artwork in 2009 had prejudiced Disney.

“These allegations are sufficient to hold that Disney suffered economic prejudice from Mathew’s delay in seeking rescission because, relying on its presumed rights, including the comprehensive release obtained from Mathew, Disney expended significant resources in developing its ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise. Accordingly, Mathew cannot rescind the release,” the court wrote in a 4-page ruling.

Judge Richard Clifton dissented. He found that Disney had reaped from enormous rewards from the “Pirates” franchise and would have continued with the movies regardless of Mathew’s claims. To argue otherwise was “implausible,” and Disney did not establish prejudice from Mathew’s delay.

“It is hardly obvious that Disney would have abandoned such a lucrative movie series simply because Mathew threatened to try to rescind the release,” Clifton wrote. “Mathew did not notify Disney of his claim until after the first, very successful movie in the series had been released. Substantial revenues had already started flowing to Disney before the release was ever negotiated with Mathew.”

Clifton added: “The claim presented by plaintiff Royce Mathew strikes me as unlikely to succeed in the end, for multiple reasons, but that perception does not give us leave to resolve this case at the stage of motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) based on a determination that is essentially factual. I would vacate the district court’s order of dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) and remand for further proceedings.”

Ninth Circuit Judge John Owens and U.S. District Judge John Antoon sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida, constituted the majority in the unpublished ruling.