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Disney ducks copyright action over animation technology

The judge found no proof a Disney contractor had used the facial motion capture technology.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Disney has prevailed in its fight to throw out claims that it used copyrighted facial motion capture technology patented by a San Francisco company in several movies without permission. 

The entertainment giant last appeared in court in January to argue that it should not have to face a jury trial over the claims. A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed Rearden LLC’s complaint without prejudice, saying the company failed to provide enough evidence to back up its claims against Disney. 

Reardon claims Disney got access to its facial performance motion capture tech by contracting the company DD3, which employed a former Rearden employee. Rearden claims the employee stole equipment and copies of a copyrighted software program from a secure facility before he left to work for DD3 in 2013. Disney contracted with DD3 to create lifelike animated characters for hit films using MOVA Contour technology — which uses phosphorescent makeup on actors’ faces and synchronized cameras and software to transform expressions and movements into lifelike animations.

In 2018, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar denied Rearden’s bid to claim ownership of the movies and games, but he refused to dismiss claims of vicarious and contributory copyright infringement. The Ninth Circuit affirmed Tigar’s decision in 2019.

However, Tigar granted Disney’s motion for summary judgment in 2020 after the studio argued there was no causal link between the use of that technology and profits earned from movies. 

Rearden has argued Disney knew about and could have stopped DD3’s purported infringement, because Disney had the right to terminate DD3’s services under contracts for the two films. Rearden also claimed its complaint sufficiently shows direct copyright infringement, for which Disney would be secondarily liable, and that the inventions claimed in the patents are patent-eligible.

But Disney’s 33-page motion to dismiss Rearden’s second amended complaint, filed this past October, argued the plaintiffs’ claims are “far-fetched” and in part pertain to ineligible patents — and that the complaint otherwise fails to state a claim for patent infringement. 

In court last month, Tiger did not indicate which way he was leaning. But his 16-page order filed Tuesday resoundingly supported Disney’s position, saying the plaintiffs did not plausibly argue that DD3 used the MOVA software.

Tigar said that Rearden relied on spreadsheets created by DD3 and returned to Rearden under the supervision of the special master in the ownership litigation.

He said although he previously found it implausible “that the MOVA Contour output is created by the program without any substantial contribution from the actors or directors.” Rearden relied on Disney’s contention in other litigation that the directors’ contribution is "substantial” and they are "the authors of the results of the facial motion capture.” He said Rearden did not use enough basic information about spreadsheet titles and data fields to prove facts about underlying files, or to claim that the files are copies, or reflect the copying, of MOVA software.

“For this reason, the court holds that the complaint fails to allege that the output files amount to protectable expression,” Tigar wrote.

“While the facts concerning the spreadsheets are well pleaded and thus entitled to a presumption of truth, those facts are insufficient to support a reasonable inference that MOVA was operated ‘for facial captures or for processing captures into output works.’ Stripped of its conclusory allegations, the complaint fails to allege that DD3 performed facial capture shoots using the MOVA system. The complaint thus fails to plead direct infringement and, by extension, secondary infringement.”

Tigar said he does not need to address the parties’ arguments regarding contributory and vicarious infringement. And because the claims fail to recite ways of implementing markerless facial motion capture, he ruled the patents are directed to abstract ideas. He said “the level of detail in the specification does not transform a claim reciting only an abstract concept into a patent-eligible system or method,” and Rearden’s argument is without merit.

Although Rearden has twice amended its complaint, Tigar said some claims are new and that Disney has not shown that any amendment would be sought in bad faith, produce an undue delay or be futile. Rearden may file an amended complaint within 21 days to cure the deficiencies the judge identified, or face dismissal of the claims with prejudice.

Attorneys for Disney and the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment before deadline. 

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Entertainment, Media, Technology

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