A Massachusetts cartoonist has been charged with fraud and perjury stemming from his failed 2011 copyright-infringement lawsuit against DreamWorks Animation involving the 2008 blockbuster Kung Fu Panda.
According to an indictment unsealed just before Christmas by the U.S. District Attorney in Boston, artist Jayme Gordon claimed the studio had stolen the characters and story for the 2008 blockbuster, and filed a lawsuit “as part of a fraud scheme designed to obtain a multi-million-dollar settlement” from the company.
Gordon created a story in the 1990s called Panda Power, featuring two pandas — Kid, a giant panda who is sort of a big brother to Red, a smaller, mischievous, red panda. He registered a number of pages of drawings with the U.S. Copyright Office in 1999 and 2000; the animation website Cartoon Brew has some examples in Brian Gabriel’s excellent writeup of this case.
After Gordon saw a trailer for Kung Fu Panda in 2008, the indictment alleges, he revised his drawings so they resembled the movie characters more closely, re-titled the property Kung Fu Panda Power, and registered for copyright again. In 2011, he sued DreamWorks for copyright infringement, saying he had pitched the work to various studios and that DreamWorks had based Kung Fu Panda on it without his authorization. The complaint includes a list of similarities between the two properties, suggesting that this was no coincidence.
Well, it wasn’t. However, according to the indictment, that’s because Gordon tried to turn back time: The original Panda Power bore little similarity to Kung Fu Panda, so he revised it to bring it closer to the film, backdated the drawings, and destroyed any evidence that would conflict with his version. Prosecutors contend the sketches Gordon provided as evidence, dated between 1990 and 1994, were in fact traced from a Lion King coloring book published in 1996. He also allegedly shredded the earlier Panda Power drawings he created before the 2008 copyright filing. When that emerged in 2013, Gordon dropped the lawsuit.
Shortly after Gordon filed suit, his lawyers had approached DreamWorks and offered to settle for $12 million plus a half-percent royalty on future earnings. DreamWorks refused to settle.
Gordon is charged with four counts of wire fraud and three counts of perjury, which carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. (However, the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office notes, “Actual sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties,” which is an interesting disclaimer.) Gordon pleaded not guilty and was released on $100,000 bond.