Did The Walt Disney Company and Pixar Steal the Movie Inside Out?

By Amanda G. Ciccatelli
October 2, 2017

Anger and fear are a few feelings that The Walt Disney Company and Pixar may be feeling right now, amidst a recent lawsuit against them. Anger and fear are also emotion-based characters inside a little girl’s head in the animated Pixar hit Inside Out.

Robins Kaplan LLP filed an Amended Complaint detailing allegations that The Walt Disney Company and Pixar misappropriated the central concept and characters behind the animated hit movie Inside Out from a nationally recognized child development expert, Denise Daniels, who had pitched her uniquely original material and characters from her show The Moodsters to top studio executives.

Daniels and The Moodsters Company recently sued The Walt Disney Company and Pixar for copyright infringement and breach of an implied contract because of Disney/Pixar’s unauthorized use of Daniels’ idea and The Moodsters Company’s copyrighted characters in Inside Out. Daniels alleges a breach of implied-in-fact contract. Under California Civil Code section 1621, “an implied contract is one, the existence and terms of which are manifested by conduct.”

Today, she is an expert in the emotional development of children. She has worked with children affected by Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. From 2005-2009, she and her team held several discussions with Disney executives about developing an animated series focused on emotional intelligence in children. The Moodsters, would take place inside a child and feature five characters, each representing a single emotion and distinguished by a color. Daniels developed extensive materials about the show, which were shared with Rich Ross, then-president of Disney Channels Worldwide, and Roy E. Disney, among other senior executives.

Daniels’s contact with Disney/Pixar included a discussion with Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out. According to the Amended Complaint, in that conversation, “Daniels walked Docter through in detail the characters, curriculum, and concept underlying The Moodsters. Pixar began work on Inside Out in 2010, the year following Daniels’s last discussions with the studios. The movie’s important similarities to The Moodsters include the use of five color-coded characters representing different emotions inside a child.

After its release in 2015, Inside Out was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay”, and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Since then, the movie has even grossed more than $950 million in global ticket and DVD sales.

Ronald Schutz, partner at Robins Kaplan and lead trial counsel for Daniels and The Moodsters Company, sat down with IPWatchdog to discuss the copyright infringement claims. Robins Kaplan previously secured an award of $320 million against Disney in litigation over profits to the ABC game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Robins Kaplan represented Celador International, the creator of the show.

“We’re familiar with rewriting the odds for our clients, particularly for those inventors and artists who need trial lawyers to stand up to larger, better-funded companies,” said Patrick M. Arenz of Robins Kaplan, who also serves as trial counsel for the plaintiffs.

“Based on her decades of work with children, Denise Daniels created an original, accessible, and powerful way to tell a story about emotional intelligence using five color coded characters each representing a different emotion,” explained Schutz. “Ms. Daniels copyrighted her work and shared it with Disney.”

The Moodsters is an animated children’s television program based on five single-emotion, color-coded characters that takes place deep inside a child. Inside Out is premised on the same idea – both The Moodsters and Inside Out feature five main characters. All of those characters represent a single emotion and are represented by a core color. Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out uses four out of five of the same emotions (happiness/joy, sadness, anger, and fear), and four out of the five same colors (yellow, blue, red, and green) as The Moodsters.

According to Schutz, The Moodsters Company registered its animated pilot episode with the United States Copyright Office in 2007, and other detailed materials about the program and characters after that. There are five separate claims for copyright infringement in this case: (1) Disney/Pixar’s infringement of the ensemble or collection of characters in The Moodsters; (2) Disney/Pixar’s infringement of the happy character in The Moodsters; (3) Disney/Pixar’s infringement of the sadness character in The Moodsters; (4) Disney/Pixar’s infringement of the anger character in The Moodsters; and (5) Disney/Pixar’s infringement of the fear character in The Moodsters.

“Disney/Pixar will likely file a motion to dismiss the amended complaint, which Daniels and The Moodsters Company will vigorously oppose,” explained Schutz. “Assuming the Court denies that motion, the parties will then engage in fact discovery, which will involve production of internal documents and depositions of employees and officers of both parties as well. We hope a trial will take place within around 18 months of the Court’s entry of a scheduling order.”

So, how can artists like Daniels protect their intellectual property more effectively?

Per Schutz, Daniels and The Moodsters Company undertook appropriate and reasonable precautions for protecting their IP, for example, registering copyrights for their works and only disclosing their ideas to Disney/Pixar when it was understood they would receive compensation if Disney/Pixar used the idea.

“Copyright law exists to protect artists from unauthorized copying of original expressions of ideas,” he said. “What is ultimately most important is not so much what artists can do for themselves, but instead to ensure that artists who have protected their IP have access to a strong and efficient forum to enforce their rights against entities that copy their original works.”

The Author

Amanda G. Ciccatelli

Amanda G. Ciccatelli is a Freelance Journalist for IPWatchdog, where she covers intellectual property. She earned a B.A. in Communications and Journalism from Central Connecticut State University in 2010. Amanda is also currently the Lead Strategist of Content Marketing, Social Media & Digital Products at Informa, a leading global business intelligence, academic publishing, knowledge and events business. She also works as a Freelance Journalist for Inside Counsel. Amanda was formerly a Web Editor at Technology Marketing Corporation. Follow her at @AmandaCicc.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

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  1. Michael J. October 2, 2017 11:43 pm

    While copyright infringement is a problem, I enjoy reading stories like this. That is, when a copyright maximalist company that got it’s start using and built a lot of its empire on the public domain, is accused of copyright infringement. I guess this is some payback for the House of Mouse and other companies lobbying Congress to set the public domain back by decades,

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