Disney has become entangled in the long-running legal battle over rights to an Oscar-winning visual effects technology, and its profits on “Beauty and the Beast,” the year’s top-grossing movie so far, and two other blockbusters are in potential jeopardy.
Rearden, a company founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman, on Monday sued Disney in U.S. district court in San Francisco, alleging copyright, patent and trademark infringement stemming from Disney’s use of a facial-capture technology in the March blockbuster “Beauty and the Beast,” 2014′s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and 2015′s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The three films have collectively taken in more than $3.5 billion in global box office.
Rearden is seeking injunctions to stop Disney from selling or showing these movies until the suit is resolved, and is also seeking orders to destroy all infringing copies, in addition to financial damages.
The suit was filed by a team of attorneys led by Steve Berman and Mark Carlson from Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro. It also names Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Marvel Films, which produced “Age of Ultron” and “Guardians,” and Mandeville Films, the Disney-based production company behind “Beauty and the Beast.”
At issue is technology called MOVA Contour, which was used in “Beauty and the Beast” to transfer the facial movements of actor Dan Stevens to the beast’s face. In the two Marvel movies, it was utilized in the portrayal of the alien Thanos.
Since 2015, Rearden has been involved in legal battles against Digital Domain and its affiliates over MOVA, claiming that a former employee, Greg LaSalle stole the technology and unlawfully sold it to Digital Domain, an Los Angeles-based visual effects firm.
In June 2016, a federal judge granted Rearden a preliminary injunction preventing Digital Domain from continuing to use MOVA pending a ruling in a trial that was held in December in Los Angeles. In that case, Rearden claimed that Digital Domain did not have the rights to sell the MOVA rights to China’s Virtual Global Holdings, nor did that firm have the right to sell them to another Chinese company, Shenzhen Haiticheng Science and Technology.
“Disney never bothered to contact its longtime MOVA Contour service provider Rearden LLC to ask any questions or to verify Disney’s authorization to use the MOVA Contour system, methods, trade secrets or trademarks that Disney knew Rearden owned,” according to the lawsuit.
Neither Disney nor Digital Domain immediately returned calls asking for comment on Monday.
Disney should have known that the rights were in questions, the suit alleges, because the studio explored acquiring the technology itself from the former Rearden employee. When Rearden sent a letter pointing out that it owned the rights to MOVA, Disney dropped out of the bidding.
Prior to that, Digital Domain provided the technology and the system was used in Paramount Pictures’ “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Warner Bros.’ “Gravity” and Disney’s “Tron.”
Perlman is an inventor and executive who, after exiting Apple Inc., developed the XBAND modems that enabled multiplayer Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo video games in 1994, and later developed and sold WebTV to Microsoft Corp. in 1997. He left and founded Rearden in 1999, and in 2004 he developed the MOVA system to capture a live actor’s facial expressions and transfers them to digital characters.
It was honored with a science and technology Academy Award in 2015, which is when the dispute over the patent and copyrights first surfaced.