Disney Defense in Animation Case Could Shield Studios From Copyright Claims

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge seemed inclined Thursday to rule that humans play a bigger role than technology in making animated films successful: a finding that could spell trouble for copyright lawsuits against Walt Disney and other major studios.

“This argument, that the contribution of the actor or director is trivial, trivial is not the standard,” U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said in court Thursday.

Tigar was analyzing the copyright claims in four lawsuits, against Walt Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and video game maker Crystal Dynamics.

San Francisco-based Rearden LLC sued the studios in July 2017, claiming they used a stolen version of its “facial performance motion capture” technology to create hit films, including “Beauty and the Beast,” which grossed more than $1 billion in global box office sales.

Rearden is asking Tigar to ban distribution of allegedly infringing games and movies, including “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014); “Avengers Age of Ultron” (2015); “Fantastic Four” (2015); “Terminator: Genisys” (2015); “Rise of the Tomb Raider” (2015); “Deadpool” (2016); “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), and others.

Rearden claims the studios contracted with a Chinese company, Digital Domain 3.0, or DD3, that stole its technology and falsely claimed ownership of its patents.

Rearden’s 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.

On Thursday, the studios’ attorney Kelly Klaus called Rearden’s copyright claims absurd, saying the company can’t claim ownership of movies just because it developed a software program that was used in producing the films.

Accepting such an argument would mean that Adobe and Microsoft could claim ownership of every picture and document made using Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word, said Klaus, with Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Klaus said the performances were memorable and the films successful because of the talents and creativity of actors such as Dan Stevens, who played the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Our point is the creativity embodied in the Beast’s face are the movements that Stevens’ face is making,” Klaus said.

But Rearden’s attorney Mark Carlson, with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, said those performances would not have been possible without Rearden’s facial capture technology.

“It’s whether the software performs the lion’s share of the work,” Carlson said.

He said the software uses trillions of programmed instructions to transform 2-D grayscale video into lifelike 3-D animations.

Tigar appeared skeptical.

“Could you recreate Mr. Stevens’ performance?” he asked. “Could you do that performance?”

Carlson replied that he could do the performance, though not as well as the actor who played the Beast.

Moving on to claims of patent infringement, which are alleged against only Disney and Crystal Dynamics, Tigar seemed more inclined to find that Disney likely knew it was using patent-infringing technology.

Rearden claims Disney must have known the system it was using was stolen because it had previously worked with Rearden, and because it often reviews projects and business relationships for intellectual property issues.

“It’s not unreasonable to imagine that before any large work, Disney undertakes due diligence,” Tigar said. “It’s not an unreasonable allegation to make in a complaint, and they make it.”

But Disney attorney Rohit Singla said that mere knowledge that Rearden owned the patents is not enough: Rearden must show intent to hold Disney liable for patent infringement.

“All we’re accused of doing is hiring DD3 to use the MOVA system,” Singla said. “There’s no direct infringement here.”

Tigar ended the hearing after 90 minutes of arguments. He set a case management conference for March 7.

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