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Disney Accused of Using Stolen Technology in Hit Films

Disney used stolen technology to create lifelike animated characters for top-grossing hit films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a technology company claims in a new lawsuit. 

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Disney used stolen technology to create lifelike animated characters for top-grossing hit films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a technology company claims in a new lawsuit.

San Francisco-based Rearden LLC sued The Walt Disney Co., Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Marvel Studios and Mandeville Films in federal court on Monday.

Rearden says Disney knowingly contracted with a Chinese company that stole its patented “facial performance motion capture” technology. The MOVA Contour technology uses phosphorescent makeup on actors’ faces with synchronized cameras and software to transform the curves, expressions and movements of human faces into lifelike animations.

“Beauty and the Beast” co-star Emma Watson lauded the technology’s ability to capture “the subtlety” of her co-star Dan Stevens' facial expressions and performance at a Paris press conference cited in Rearden’s lawsuit.

“But in all of the film industry and media accolades about the record-breaking success of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and the acclaimed cutting-edge digital MOVA Contour technology that made the film’s success possible, nowhere is it mentioned that the patented and copyright-protected MOVA Contour technology was stolen from its inventor and developer, Rearden LLC, and its owner Rearden Mova LLC,” the 83-page complaint states.

Rearden, founded in 1999 by former Apple principal scientist Steve Perlman, started offering “performance motion capture” technology for movies and video games in 2000.

At that time, “there was no known technology … that could capture and track the subtleties of human facial motion in a realistic, life-like manner, despite an urgent need,” Rearden says in its complaint.

The company spent five years developing the 3-D facial-capture technology, which was praised as “revolutionary” when first unveiled at a computer graphics conference in July 2006, according to the complaint.

In 2012, Rearden’s subsidiary OnLive transferred the MOVA Contour patents to a company called OL2 Inc. “as part of an assignment for the benefit of creditors.”

When Rearden learned that OL2 was looking to sell the MOVA assets, it took action to reacquire them through a subsidiary called MO2 LLC in February 2013. The assets were then transferred in April 2013 to another Rearden subsidiary, Rearden Mova, according to the complaint.

But Rearden later learned that an employee of its MO2 subsidiary named Greg LaSalle had started negotiating in October 2012 with a China and India-owned company called Digital Domain 3.0, or DD3, to purchase the MOVA assets.

Years later in February 2015, another Chinese corporation called Shenzhenshi Haitiecheng sued Rearden in the Northern District of California federal court, claiming it had acquired the MOVA assets in May 2013 and that it had granted DD3 an exclusive license to use the patents.

Rearden says Shenzhenshi’s supposed acquisition of MOVA assets could not have occurred on May 8, 2013, because it had already assigned the patents to Rearden Mova on April 19, 2013.

Furthermore, Rearden says its former employee LaSalle “never had authority to sell the MO2 LLC assets to anyone (and certainly not for his personal enrichment).”

The company also claims LaSalle stole Rearden’s equipment and copies of its copyrighted software program from a secure storage facility before he left to start working for DD3 in May 2013.

“The system used by DD3 is the very same system developed and constructed by Rearden and stolen by DD3 from the secure storage facility,” Rearden says in its complaint.

Rearden says Disney knew or should have known that DD3 was using a stolen and illegal version of its patented technology when it agreed to work with the company to make “Beauty and the Beast” and other hit films.

That’s because Disney knew of a demand letter Rearden sent in March 2013 notifying LaSalle that he had illegally taken the MOVA assets owned by Rearden and that it would take legal action if necessary. Prior to that letter being issued, Disney was also looking to acquire the patents, according to Rearden’s complaint.

“Despite the fact that defendant Disney MPG was sufficiently concerned about the Rearden demand letter to drop out of acquiring the MOVA assets, despite the fact that it knew that MOVA asset ownership was claimed by Rearden … defendant Disney MPG nonetheless secretly contracted … and used the MOVA assets on at least two of their largest motion pictures without ever contacting Rearden,” the company claims in its lawsuit.

No one outside of Disney and its subsidiaries is a party to Rearden’s complaint.

Rearden says Disney contracted with DD3 to provide facial performance capture services for “Beauty and the Beast,” which premiered in March 2017. The film earned more than $500 million in U.S. box office receipts and over $1 billion globally.

Rearden claims Disney also used the technology for actor Josh Brolin’s portrayal of the character Thanos in its 2014 film “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2015 film “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which earned $773 million and $1.4 billion in global box office sales, respectively.

Rearden and its subsidiary Rearden Mova assert eight claims of copyright, trademark and patent infringement against Disney and other defendants involved in producing the hit films.

Rearden seeks damages and an injunction banning the distribution of those films without its permission and prohibiting Disney from using its patented technology without authorization in future films.

Rearden is represented by Rio Pierce of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Berkeley, and by Steve Berman and Mark Carlson in Seattle.

The Walt Disney Company did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday morning.

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Categories / Courts, Entertainment, Technology

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