TORONTO — An entertainment lawyer says “there is a lot at stake” in a Toronto man’s copyright lawsuit against Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures Inc. for the film “Inside Out,” with there being few similar cases like this in Canada.
Damon Pourshian, a Sheridan College graduate, alleges that Disney Pixar copied his 2002 short film “Inside Out” in which the protagonist’s organs become personified characters that guide him.
According to court documents, Pourshian said he came up with the idea for the film while he was in high school in 1998 and wrote the screenplay in 2000 as a film student at Sheridan College.
Pourshian says he oversaw production of the 14-minute short film with the same title and alleges Disney had access to various campus screenings of his film, which won the People’s Choice Award at an annual showcase.
Tara Parker of Goodman LLP told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday that Pourshian claims there is a “substantial similarity” between Disney’s “Inside Out” and a variety of elements in his original film.
However, she said proving that is tricky, as “we don’t have a ton of jurisprudence in Canada on these issues.”
“The case has to be proven on a balance of probabilities… and that means they have to bring evidence, and show on a balance of probabilities that there is evidence of infringement and that substantial elements of his case have been copied in the Disney Pixar film,” Parker explained.
The blockbuster movie “Inside Out,” released in June 2015, concerns the emotions of 11-year-old Riley, which are portrayed as characters who interact and try to influence her behaviour. The acclaimed animated film grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide and won an Oscar for best animated feature in 2016.
Pourshian is suing several Walt Disney entities and Pixar for breach of copyright. For example, he alleges the movie’s character Fear and his character Brain are “tightly wound ‘nerdy’ male characters that are both prone to panic.”
On July 12, an Ontario court ruled that Pourshian’s case can move forward despite Disney’s initial argument that the province had no jurisdiction over the majority of the named defendants.
In a prior decision from October 2019, a judge ruled that the Ontario court had jurisdiction over the claims against three of the defendants, but not against the other five, such as Walt Disney Company and Disney Enterprises, as the film was made in California and didn’t fall under Canadian copyright law.
Pourshian appealled the decision and the Appellate Court ruled that there were errors in the 2019 ruling and that the Ontario court actually had jurisdiction over six of the eight U.S. defendants.
Disney’s defendants have also been ordered to pay Pourshian $25,000 in legal fees because he was “substantially,” but not entirely successful on this appeal. No trial for the case has been scheduled.
While there may be similarities between the two films, Parker said it is important to remember that ideas are not protected under copyright law.
“It’s the unique expression of those ideas [that’s protected], and you really have to copy a substantial portion of somebody’s work in order for it to constitute infringement,” Parker said.
Parker said various elements that are common to both films may not be as unique as Pourshian thinks they are.
For example, Parker said a child talking to their mother about feeling uncomfortable at school over breakfast are common elements to “lots of films and projects involving kids and their experiences through life.”
“It would really be the cumulative effect of all of these elements put together that together constitute an overall infringement and we could use a lot of guidance from the court on that,” she explained.
Sheridan College has a reputation as a major source of high-level animation talent, with many having gone on to work for Disney and Pixar including “Turning Red” and “Bao” director Domee Shi.
Given Sheridan’s reputation, Pourshian claims it is conceivable that his student film was on the radar of serious American moviemakers.
Pourchian also notes in his statement of claim that four of his former classmates were recruited by Pixar to work on 2015’s “Inside Out.”
These allegations have not yet been proven in court, and Parker says they may be difficult to.
“There’s no evidence that any of the materials that I’ve seen that any specific pitching of materials were made to executives there, or executives travelled there to see the film, or that former grads who had seen the film participated in the project,” Parker said.
Despite this, Parker said “there is a lot at stake” with this case, specifically for Pourshian.
In the lawsuit, Pourshian is requesting the court declare that he owns the copyright to his student film, the film’s screenplay and its live production, and that Disney and its defendants infringed his copyright through the creation of 2015’s “Inside Out.”
The lawsuit demands an injunction, financial damages and that Pourshian’s name be added to the Disney movie’s credits.
“Obviously it would be a huge boost to Damon Pourshian were he able to prove that in fact his original work was used by Disney and Pixar in creating their film,” Parker said.
Records show that Pourshian withdrew a similar lawsuit he filed in California last year.
Two similar U.S. lawsuits over “Inside Out” have been unsuccessful. A child development expert claimed the film looked like a TV project she had pitched to Disney executives, while an author claimed the film was based on a book she had written.
With files from The Canadian Press