Copycat cartoon ordered by court to pay penalty
A Shanghai Pudong district court sentenced two Chinese companies to pay 1.35 million yuan ($194,500) to two Hollywood studios on Thursday for infringing on their copyrighted material.
On July 4, 2015, The Autobots, a Chinese animated film produced by Xiamen-based Bluemtv and distributed by Beijing G-Point Film Culture Media Co, was released. It generated an instant backlash when Chinese moviegoers found the film’s title, poster and main characters to be eerily similar to Cars and its sequel, produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Many Chinese parents wrote online that they had been tricked into buying tickets to The Autobots because they thought they were for screenings of Cars.
The court, after comparing the movies, determined that the images of K1 and K2, of The Autobots, violated the copyright of the movies from the United States because they resembled the main characters in the Cars franchise in the personified facial portrayals. But the two posters had sufficient differences in composition and background to not add to the offense.
The court concluded that Cars belongs to “a name brand”, which is protected under Chinese law. While the plaintiffs claimed that the US movies’ official Chinese title Saiche Zongdongyuan had an
alternate name Qiche Zongdongyuan, the court said the defendant’s title Qicheren Zongdongyuan would not be confused with them. But the cover-up of the crucial word ren in the poster, by the image of a wheel, made it prone to misunderstanding and hence constituted unfair competition.
Back when The Autobots was in theaters, Zhuo Jianrong, its director, had denied public charges of plagiarism.
He claimed that he had not seen Cars and was not even aware of its characters’ names. “All motor vehicles are somewhat alike. Is it illegal if you happen to look like somebody else?” He said he was legally allowed to use any movie title that had not been registered in China.
Subsequently, Zhuo got into a virtual scuffle with members of the public who said he brought shame to the industry.
There were reporters who checked the content of Zhuo’s movie, about a wunderkind who designed three cars with different personalities, and found it to have little similarity with the Hollywood animation. Still, the movie was widely viewed by the Chinese public as a shoddy copycat that “shamelessly” ripped off a widely known work.
The Autobots was one of the lowest rated films in 2015, receiving 2.2 on Mtime, 2.1 on Douban and 2.5 on Gewara, all out of 10 points. Many websites called it “exceeding the lowest limit of a domestic animation film”. It grossed 5.64 million yuan in total at the box office.
The irony is, the same season saw the birth of the best-selling and greatly reviewed Chinese animation. Monkey King: Hero Is Back was propelled to the record of 1 billion yuan in box-office takings, the highest for a domestic animated feature, with stellar word-of-mouth. The film was an effort to marry characters of a popular Chinese legend with Hollywood-style storytelling.
On the film site Mtime, the court verdict was announced with the headline: “Great news! The Autobots was fined 1.35 million yuan for plagiarism.”
Posters of Cars (left) and TheAutobots show the similarity of the two animation films.