Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) denied certiorari for a Petition seeking the Justices clean up the legal “chaos” over the protection of fictional characters under U.S. Copyright Law. In the November Brief in Opposition, Respondents alleged “[t]he petition’s premise is false. There is no chaos. Instead, there is striking coherence and comity among the circuits, which freely cite each other’s decisions as a shared explication of a legal standard first articulated by Judge Learned Hand in 1930."
In 2017, Denise Daniels and The Moodsters Company (Plaintiffs) brought suit against The Walt Disney Company (Defendant) in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California. See Denise Daniels and The Moodsters Company v. The Walt Disney Company, et al, 17-CV-4527 PSG (SKx) (C.D. Cal. 2018). In its complaint, the Plaintiffs’ alleged copyright infringement of the individual characters and the ensemble of characters “The Moodsters”, a cartoon world populated by characters that embody individual emotions, to help children understand and regulate their emotions. Each Moodster is color-coded and anthropomorphic, and each represents a single emotion: happiness (yellow), sadness (blue), anger (red), fear (green), and love (pink). In the 2015 film Inside Out, Disney Pixar introduced the public to anthropomorphized emotions living inside the head of an 11-year-old girl featuring five color-coded emotions as characters—joy (yellow), sadness (blue), anger (red), fear (purple), and disgust (green). The District Court granted the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss after finding the Plaintiffs’ characters lacked “specific traits on par with those of the iconic characters” that had achieved independent copyrightability, such as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Superman, and James Bond.
Although characters are not an enumerated copyrightable subject matter under the Copyright Act, see 17 U.S.C. §102(a), there is a long history of extending copyright protection to graphically-depicted characters. See, e.g., Olson v. Nat’l Broad. Co., 855 F.2d 1446, 1452 (9th Cir. 1988); Walt Disney Prods. v. Air Pirates, 581 F.2d 751, 755 (9th Cir. 1978). Characters standing alone are not entitled to copyright protection absent the character (1) having “physical as well as conceptual qualities,” (2) being “‘sufficiently delineated’ to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears,” AND (3) being “‘especially distinctive’ and containing ‘some unique elements of expression.’” See DC Comics v. Towle, 802 F.3d 1012, 1020-21 (9th Cir. 2015). Consistently recognizable characters like Godzilla or James Bond, whose physical characteristics may change over various iterations, but who maintain consistent and identifiable character traits and attributes across various productions and adaptations, meet the test. See Tono Co. v. William Morrow & Co., 33 F. Supp. 2d 1206, 1215 (C.D. Cal. 1998) (finding Godzilla is consistently a “pre- historic, fire-breathing, gigantic dinosaur alive and well in the modern world”), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. v. Am. Honda Motor Corp., 900 F. Supp. 1287, 1296 (C.D. Cal. 1995) (noting James Bond has consistent traits such as “his cold-bloodedness; his overt sexuality; his love of martinis ‘shaken, not stirred;’ his marksmanship; his ‘license to kill’ and use of guns; his physical strength; his sophistication”).
In 2020, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of the Plaintiffs’ suit because “lightly sketched” characters such as The Moodsters, which lack “consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes,” do not enjoy copyright protection. See DC Comics v. Towle, 802 F.3d 1012, 1019, 1021 (9th Cir. 2015). The Ninth Circuit found the notion of using a color to represent a mood or emotion is an idea that does not fall within the protection of copyright and that colors themselves are not generally copyrightable. The Ninth Circuit concluded the Plaintiffs could not copyright the idea of colors or emotions, nor could she copyright the idea of using colors to represent emotions where these ideas are embodied in a character without sufficient delineation and distinctiveness.