Suit Against Disney Movie ‘Frozen’ is “Iced” Out of Court

An author’s suit alleging that Walt Disney Co.’s hit animated movie “Frozen” infringed her copyrights in two books was properly dismissed, a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has ruled.

The panel agreed with a February decision by the U.S. District Judge William J. Martini of the District of New Jersey that the books were not substantially similar to the Disney movie. Tanikumi v. Walt Disney Co., No. 14–5877, 2015 WL 716429 (D.N.J. Feb. 19, 2015).

Plaintiff Isabella Tanikumi, who uses the pen name Amy Gonzalez, filed the $250 million suit in 2014, alleging Disney plagiarized broad thematic elements of her autobiographical books “Yearnings of the Heart” and “Living My Truth: An Internal Odyssey.”  Judge Martini tossed the suit, concluding Tanikumi’s story was entirely different from the fantasy of “Frozen,” which was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen.”

In affirming, the 3rd Circuit noted a plaintiff can establish copying by demonstrating substantial similarities between two works. Courts must determine whether an allegedly infringing work is similar because it appropriates the unique original expressions of a protected work or whether it copies ideas that would be expected in works that explore the same theme.

Original expression is protected by copyright, but common themes and ideas are not, the appeals panel said.  In its analysis, the panel cited Judge Martini’s summaries of the two works.

He described Tanikumi’s memoirs as telling the story of her life, loves and tragedies from her life in the mountains of Peru to her move to the United States, where she eventually married and had a family.  The tragedies included the death of her sister, with whom Tanikumi shared an intense sisterly bond.

Judge Martini described “Frozen” as the story of two princess sisters, Elsa and Anna, who are very close and who live in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has the secret magical ability to create snow and ice. When she and Anna have a fight, Elsa’s powers become known to the world and she flees to an ice castle, inadvertently creating a permanent winter in the kingdom she left behind.

Anna follows Elsa to the castle, where Elsa accidentally hits Anna with a surge of magical energy in her chest that will eventually cause her to freeze to death unless an act of true love can save her.  The sisters return to Arendelle, where Anna saves Elsa’s life. That act of true love saves Anna, reconciles the sisters and ends the winter spell in Arendelle.

The 3rd Circuit panel agreed with Judge Martini’s determination that “Frozen” did not appropriate any unique expressions from Tanikumi’s work.  The similarities existed only in generic plot and theme ideas, such as a mountain setting, an intense sisterly bond, and a resolution in which the female protagonist “comes into her own” without the help of a man.

There were also dramatic differences in the mood and overall feel of the works, the appeals panel said. Tanikumi’s works, as she describes them, are an “introspective account of … her remarkable life,” while “Frozen” is a lighthearted, sometimes comical, children’s movie.  Tanikumi thus did not allege any legally recognized similarities between her work and “Frozen,” and the District Court properly held she failed to state a copyright infringement claim, the panel said.

Tanikumi v. Walt Disney Co. et al., No. 15-1959, 2015 WL 5693125 (3d Cir. Sept. 29, 2015).