Disney wins China copyright suit over Cars knock-off

The Autobots took the design of Disney’s Cars series, constituting ‘unfair competition,’ a Shanghai court says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 4:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2016, 10:58pm

A Shanghai court handed Walt Disney Co. a legal victory against two Chinese companies over a copyright dispute, ruling that their animation feature The Autobots had knocked off the Hollywood hit Cars produced by Disney’s Pixar studios.

The court ordered the Chinese companies Blue MTV and Beijing G-Point to pay Disney a combined 1.35 million yuan (US$194,244) in damages for copyright infringements and unfair competition.

“The animated car characters of The Autobots have similar eyes, mouth and colours, matching those of Cars, and therefore the defendants have infringed the copyright of the plaintiff,” the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court said in a ruling published on its website.

Trademark disputes in China have been a bone of contention for many foreign brands and trademarks for decades.

Chinese clothing maker Tingfei Long Sporting Goods Co. launched a premium clothing brand in May called Uncle Martian, featuring a logo that resembled Under Armour, compelling the Baltimore-based sporting goods company to launch a US$15 million trademark suit against the Chinese copycat.

Disney itself is no stranger to copyright infringements in China, with its popular Mickey Mouse and other classic cartoon characters the subject of much emulation.

The Autobots was produced by a little-known Beijing animation studio last year. It meshed the characters produced by Disney’s Pixar studios with the title of the characters in Hasbro’s Transformers series.

On the movie posters, The Autobots translated its Chinese title into Qiche Zongdongyuan (汽車總動員), a play on Cars’ Chinese title Saiche Zongdongyuan (賽車總動員)with the tweak of the first character.

“It’s cheating, with both its title and poster bearing resemblance to Cars,” said a Douban reviewer using the handle FiveZeroOne, which drew over 300 likes by web users.

The Shanghai court agreed, saying that the poster had “resulted in unfair competition,” according to its statement.

The controversy didn’t help The Autobots’ at the box office, which took in 6 million yuan on a budget of 3 million yuan.

The Chinese animated feature also took the dubious honour of the Lowest Rated Chinese-Language Film of 2015 by popular rating platform Douban, the Chinese equivalent to Rotten Potatoes.

Reviewers panned it, and nominated it for Douban’s Worst Film of the Year contest.

Moviegoers said some parents were tricked into taking their children to watch The Autobots in the belief that it was a sequel of Cars, which collected the Golden Globe Award for Best Animated Feature Film and amassed a huge global fanbase since its 2006 release.

Cars, with a production budget of US$120 million, had US$462.2 million in worldwide box office takings.

The Autobots’ producer Blue MTV dismissed the criticisms, claiming that its work was original, and carried a different story line to Cars.

Undeterred by the public ire, the film’s director Zhuo Jianrong announced in April that a sequel to The Autobots is scheduled to hit screens in 2017.