Disney and Pixar sued by San Francisco tattoo artist over copyright infringement

An artist based in San Francisco by the name of Sweet Cicely Daniher is suing the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, Pixar Animation Studios and Onward producer Kori Rae for creating an animated version of her unicorn van without permission. Onward is a new animated film by Disney and Pixar, that is slated to release in March 2020.

Reported first on Hollywood Reporter, the article said that unicorns have been a "central theme and subject matter" of Daniher's work. She also owns a dark blue and/or purple 1972 Chevrolet G10 van, with an outer space background, flashes of lightning and a flying unicorn since January 2014, and has posted several pictures of the van on Instagram.

This "vanicorn" as she calls it, looks similar to the animated van called "Guinevere" in Onward.

In a court filing, Daniher said that Pixar had contacted her previously to loan her "vanicorn" for a one day event for its employees, and will only be used as a "show piece". The event was a one day music festival/activity day for Pixar employees held on 14 September 2018.

Shortly after that, in May 2019, she noticed that the Onward film in the making featured a dark blue and/or purple 1972 Chevrolet G10 van, with a unicorn mural on its side. However, three days later, on 3 June 2019, Onward producer Kori Rae telephoned Daniher to apologise for the theft of the Vanicorn for its use as the "Guinevere" character in Onward. According to the court filing, during the course of the phone call, producer Rae admitted to Daniher that the Pixar team "intentionally" did not inform her about using "vanicorn" as the "Guinevere" character. 

The court document said that the defendants (Disney, Pixar and Rae) have intentionally and unlawfully used and reproduced the plaintiff’s (Daniher) "vanicorn", and/or are about to do so, infringing upon her copyright. In doing so, the defendants have and/or will be using their infringing motion picture and/or advertisements and promotional and merchandising materials, adding to the public popularity of their own products. This, according to the court, will thereby infringe upon plaintiff’s copyright.

On 4 June 2019, Daniher posted on her personal Instagram page that the Onward producer (Rae) called her to apologise, and that the van was rented without disclosing full intentions, or plans. Daniher also said in her caption that Disney and Pixar tried to "smooth things" over with a phone call, instead of putting their art department to work. Marketing has reached out to Disney and Pixar for comment.

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News around theft  of artists' work is not as uncommon these days. Just last year in December, Shopee Malaysia apologised after being called out by cartoonist and former Buzzfeed writer Adam Ellis for stealing one of his comics to promote its 12.12. Birthday Sale. In a tweet, Ellis said: “When are brands gonna realise that ‘memes’ aren’t free clip art for them to use in advertisements?”. In a follow up tweet, Ellis said: “Anyway Shopee Malaysia, lemme know where to send an invoice.”

The initial comic showed a lady looking at her phone and tearing up after seeing an image of a gay fanart featuring Sonic the Hedgehog and Knuckles the Echidna. The edited image by Shopee, however, features the woman tearing up over “Shopee Midnight Madness 12am-2am”. Several netizens on Twitter were unhappy with Shopee’s actions, calling Shopee “shameless” and urging Ellis to either report or sue the brand, as well as watermark his work.

Another brand that have been embroiled in such an incident is smartphone company Xiaomi. In June this year, Xiaomi said one of its designers used artworks by artist Peter Tarka without permission and immediately dismissed the individual. This came after Tarka took to Twitter to expose the incident, which also involved some artworks that were commissioned by LG. The image was also used as the lead banner on Xiaomi Spain’s website.