Boston-area illustrator Jayme Gordon has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court in Massachusetts, alleging that DreamWorks stole his idea. The intellectual property lawyers who filed the complaint against DreamWorks point out a number of striking similarities between DreamWorks' chubby, fighting panda and a panda drawn and copyrighted years ago by the plaintiff. The attorneys write that DreamWorks' "Kung Fu Panda" and "Secrets of the Furious Five," a short animated direct-to-video film, both "feature characters, character depictions, character personality traits, illustrations, expression, settings, story elements, plot and sequences of events that are unlawful copies and derivatives of the copyrightable elements embodied in Gordon's Kung Fu Panda Power Work."
To prove copyright infringement, it's not enough to merely show that two works are very similar. The plaintiff will need to show not only substantial similarity between the copyrighted work and the alleged infringing work, but that DreamWorks, the alleged infringer, had access to the plaintiff's copyrighted material. In this case, Mr. Gordon specifies exactly who at DreamWorks he believes had access to his panda illustrations at the time that Kung Fu Panda was being developed, and how they may have gotten into those executives' hands.
Kung Fu Panda, released in 2008, features an overweight, food-loving panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) who is trained in the martial arts by a small red panda named Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman). The film grossed more than $630 million worldwide, and a sequel is coming out in May. Mr. Gordon claims that he first came up with the idea of a rotund Kung-Fu-fighting giant panda named Kidd who loves to eat Chinese food and who learns the martial arts from a small red panda named Redd. His copyright attorneys write in the complaint that Gordon had a collaborator create sketches of these characters in the 1990s and that around the same time, he put the sketches on clothing that he sold in the Boston area. Gordon also alleges that he sent a portfolio of his work featuring these characters and others to several studios, including DreamWorks, but received a letter of rejection in 1999.
Gordon is seeking an unspecified amount of damages for copyright infringement as well as an author credit for all the "Kung Fu Panda" films. DreamWorks hasn't yet responded to the complaint and has declined comment. This will be an interesting case to follow.