While deriving inspiration from a work does not in and of itself establish copyright infringement, overwhelming similarities between two works can constitute infringement. This question—inspiration or infringement— seems to be practically synonymous with best picture Oscar winner The Shape of Water. In February 2018, the estate of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Zindel, sued Fox Searchlight and Guillermo del Toro for copyright infringement claiming that there are striking similarities between Zindel’s 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper and The Shape of Water.
To state a claim for copyright infringement a plaintiff must establish that the works are “substantially similar in their protected elements.” Because the Copyright Act does not forbid copying of “ideas or concepts” to succeed on a claim for copyright infringement, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the copying constitutes “plaintiff’s protected expression of those ideas or concepts to render the two works substantially similar.” Here, the estate of Paul Zindel contends that The Shape of Water copied the story, themes, elements, and characters of Let Me Hear You Whisper—citing over sixty similarities including integral ideas such as both works are set in the 1960s, involve a janitorial worker developing a relationship with an experimental sea creature, the main characters are introverted women, as well as more minute details such as a decapitated cat and record player in a science lab.
In response, Fox Searchlight and Guillermo del Toro filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, delineating the differences between the play, which is essentially “a three-person play about the evils of animal experimentation” and the film, which is in contrast a “complex mixture of adult fairy tale, love story, thriller, musical comedy, and melodrama.” In addition to demonstrating the dissimilarities between the two works, Fox Searchlight and Guillermo del Toro’s motion to dismiss argues that dismissal is warranted because any similarity is based on the non-protectible idea of a relationship between a person and an animal.
Director Guillermo del Toro released a statement that he had never seen or read Let Me Hear You Whisper.
If you believe that you have a copyright has been infringed, it is important to contact a copyright lawyer before the statute of limitations is tolled. Hutcherson Law regularly handles copyright infringement cases and can help you protect your artistic works.