Is Your Character Entitled to Copyright Protection? The Ninth Circuit Reinforces High Bar for Copyright Protection of Characters

March 27, 2020 Published Article

Literary characters may enjoy copyright protection with various limitations. However, in Daniels v. The Walt Disney Company, the Ninth Circuit recently held that copyright protection should not extend to characters that are not sufficiently delineated and distinctive.

Background on the Case

Denise Daniels developed a line of anthropomorphic characters named The Moodsters, which she discussed with various entertainment companies, including The Walt Disney Company. These characters were associated with a different color for various emotions. Disney then began development of its film Inside Out, which focused on anthropomorphized characters that represent emotions inside the mind of a young girl. Daniels filed suit against Disney for copyright infringement, amongst other causes of action. The District Court granted Disney’s motion to dismiss Daniels’ amended complaint based on the ground that The Moodsters are not subject to copyright protection, inter alia.

The Ruling

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Daniels’ claim of copyright infringement. The court determined that the use of a color to represent a mood or emotion is an idea that falls outside of the realm of copyright protection and that copyright protection does not apply to the use of colors to represent emotions where the ideas are embodied in a character without sufficient delineation and distinctiveness.

Key Takeaways to Enforce Copyright Protection of Your Character(s)

The Daniels holding is important in the context of copyright law because it confirms that an idea is not subject to copyright protection and that characters lacking consistent, identifiable character attributes are not entitled to copyright protection. Because of this ruling, it is necessary to meet the following three requirements for a character to enjoy copyright protection:

  1. Does your character have physical and conceptual qualities?
  2. Is your character sufficiently delineated to be recognizable as the same character whenever it appears, and does your character display consistent, identifiable character traits and attributes?
  3. Is your character especially distinctive with some unique elements of expression?

If your character does not meet one of these requirements, you may not have the ability to enjoy copyright protection of your character. As always, it is important to consult with an attorney for a more detailed analysis on copyright law and the applicability of these laws to your intellectual property rights.

To read the Daniels v. The Walt Disney Company case, click here.