Let It Go… To Trial: Disney Frozen Out of Summary Judgment In Copyright Infringement Case


Elsa and Anna are going to trial.  Well, Olaf and Sven are headed there, at any rate.  The sanguine snowman and his reindeer buddy were featured in a trailer for the Disney hit Frozen that is now the subject of a lawsuit claiming that the trailer infringed a Mill Valley animator’s copyright for a 2010 animated short film, The Snowman.  A federal judge in April denied Disney’s motion for summary judgment in the case, finding that a reasonable jury could decide that the trailer and the short film were “substantially similar” under copyright law.

Reasonable Jury Could “Go Either Way” on Substantial Similarity

The animator, Kelly Wilson, sued Disney in 2014, alleging that Disney had the opportunity to view The Snowman prior to creating the trailer and that the studio copied the “the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters, and sequence of events from Wilson’s film.  Wilson’s complaint presents a frame-by-frame comparison of the two to establish their substantial similarity (below).

Frozen - Snowman

While the court agreed with Wilson that a jury could find the two films similar, it also declined to grant summary judgment in her favor, holding that “a reasonable jury could go either way on whether the Frozen trailer and The Snowman are ‘substantially similar.'”

Genuine Dispute Regarding Disney’s Access

Because a jury “could go either way,” Disney must prove that it did not have access to The Snowman before creating the Frozen trailer.  The court, however, found that Disney could not avoid a genuine dispute on this issue based primarily on the fact that The Snowman was screened at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival, along with Play by Play, a short film produced by Pixar, a Disney subsidiary.  Among the Pixar employees in attendance was Executive Producer, Elyse Klaidman, who works directly with Disney creative director John Lasseter, who was “heavily involved” in the creation of the trailer.  The court contrasted this situation with those in which the only established connection with copyrighted work is through “some random employee.”

So, it’s off to trial they go.  The trial is currently set for October of 2015.