Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event. In the northeast corner, weighing in at half a ton, the rookie from Emeryville, California—Guinevere! And in the southwest corner, also weighing in at half a ton, the reigning heavyweight champion from San Francisco, California—Vanicorn! Which unicorn or pegasus-emblazoned 1972 Chevrolet G10 Van will be the victor?
Although this article doesn’t involve an actual bout between vans, it does involve recently-alleged copyright infringement of a peculiar nature. In 2014, a San Francisco tattoo artist and unicorn fanatic who goes by the name of “Sweet Cicely Daniher” painted a unicorn onto her 1972 Chevrolet G10 Van as a way of coping with her recent divorce from a (now former) husband who would not “allow her” to paint the unicorn on the van. Vanicorn was thus born, making a splash in the San Francisco arts scene, appearing in San Francisco Magazine, and eventually catching the attention of Pixar Animation Studios. Pixar later contacted Daniher to request rental of Vanicorn as a show piece and visual prop for an upcoming activity for its employees and their families—Daniher agreed.
Several months after bringing Vanicorn back home, and upon viewing the trailer for the upcoming Pixar film Onward, Daniher noticed that the film’s two protagonists drove a van named “Guinevere” that bore a striking resemblance to Vanicorn—right down to the make, model, color, and large fantastical beast painted on the side. Pixar contacted Daniher later to apologize for using Vanicorn as inspiration without permission, and Daniher wasted no time in letting the world know her opinion on the matter:
Daniher promptly filed suit against Pixar, alleging copyright infringement. There can be no dispute that the vans look similar—but is there a case to be had? What truth is there to Daniher’s assertions in her complaint that Pixar “pilfered” her work “under wickedly misleading pretenses[?]” Let’s explore.
The Copyright Act extends federal copyright protection to creative works that are “fixed” in a “tangible medium of expression” and expressly declines to extend such protection to ideas—regardless of the form in which the idea is embodied. 17 U.S.C. § 102. This means that copyright protection extends to an original painting of a unicorn, but not to the idea of a unicorn painting—meaning an infringement occurs when someone copies the way an original work is expressed, but not necessarily when someone makes their own original work. The reason behind this policy is to maintain the integrity of the Constitution’s Copyright Clause, which recognizes the importance of promoting the progress of the arts. U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8.
So how does this fit in with Daniher’s infringement suit against Pixar? Although it can hardly be said that Pixar cannot include unicorn or pegasus-emblazoned vans in its movies, there is something compelling about the similarity between Vanicorn and Guinevere—both of which prominently display a large mythical horse-like beast facing to the left, with flashes of lightning, and a shape in the upper-right corner. Pixar’s brief custody of Vanicorn dispels any doubt that the similarities between the vans are just a crazy coincidence, and Pixar’s follow-up apology call with Daniher doesn’t help Pixar’s case either.
It’s anybody’s guess as to how this lawsuit will play out, but given Pixar’s audience, it would not be a stretch to imagine that similar unicorn or pegasus-emblazoned vans may start popping up after Onward releases on March 6. The lesson here: if you like and want to use someone else’s idea, make sure that any expression of that idea departs significantly from the original.
To read more about this topic, see the original report from the Hollywood Reporter.