The Shape of Water Tries to Shake off Plagiarism Controversy

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The Shape of Water, winner of four Oscars this year, is defending itself in a copyright infringement lawsuit which asserts the film copies a 1969 sci-fi play.  The suit was filed on February 21, 2018, just one day after Oscar voting began, and is pending in the Central District of California.  Defendants, which include Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and the film’s director Guillermo del Toro, filed a motion to dismiss the claims in early May. Plaintiff filed a brief opposing the motion to dismiss on June 4.

David Zindel, son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paul Zindel, alleges the film steals from his father’s 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”  Both stories feature a lonesome, “seemingly unexceptional cleaning lady” who forms a “deep, compassionate bond” with an intellectually-gifted aquatic creature, according to Zindel.  This plot is the “beating heart” of the play he claims in his brief opposing Defendants’ motion to dismiss.

But Defendants argue that no legally cognizable similarities exist and Guillermo del Toro claims he never saw or read the play. Plaintiff disputes this by arguing the play was widely disseminated via TV shows in 1969 and 1990, public performances, school curricula, and printed materials.  In his brief, Zindel highlights the legal theory that when a defendant has a “high degree of access” to a plaintiff’s work, the burden to prove that both works are substantially similar is “commensurately lowered.” If any similarities do exist, Defendants claim that they stem from the “non-protectible” idea of a “relationship between a person and an animal,” and assert that this idea has previously been the subject of several films including Free Willy, Project X, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Paul Zindel, who died in 2003, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” a play which centered on an abusive, troubled mother and her two daughters.

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