If you’re a company as large as Disney, with as much ownership over wide swaths of TV and cinema and other media as they now possess, you’re going to have some fairly frequent IP run-ins. The most recent case making news was the lawsuit brought against the estates of comic creators seeking to prevent them from canceling the copyright on Marvel characters that feature prominently in both current iterations of the comic books as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s unpleasant business, but not altogether surprising; every company is going to seek to protect its interest, and every family wants to see their relative’s legacy preserved and properly compensated.
Which brings us to the most recent IP story coming out of the House of Mouse, involving a legendary stuntman and his surviving family. Kelly Knievel, the son of the late Evel Knievel, has his trademark infringement lawsuit against Disney dismissed by a federal court judge. Knievel alleged that Disney infringed upon his father’s likeness in creating a similar character for Toy Story 4.
If you’ve seen the film, you probably remember Duke Caboom, the motorcycle daredevil toy that Woody, Buzz and company encounter on their quest to get back to Bonnie. (If you haven’t seen it, that’s on you.) The character, as voiced by Keanu Reeves, is certainly evocative of Evel Knievel and other stuntmen of his day, with a white jumpsuit and crash helmet, albeit with a French-Canadian twist, but just how evocative? The crux of Knievel’s argument is that the character is essentially derivative of his father, to a degree that constitutes infringement of the Knievel estate’s trademarks.
The judge in the case disagrees, stating in the ruling that Disney’s Kaboom was different enough that it doesn’t represent a depiction of the late stuntman. Certainly Duke Caboom owes something to that, but is it the case that Evel Knievel has come to represent the larger category of motorcycle stunt drivers? Clearly the Simpsons makes a nod towards him with Lance Murdock, the stuntman who shows up in “Bart the Daredevil”. Likewise Hot Rod puts its audiences in mind of Knievel in both stunts and in the titular character’s costume change before the climactic finale. Evel Knievel certainly has a very specific look that the family was able to trademark, but in a way the jumpsuit and helmet and cape have managed to transcend the man into becoming archetype, and for someone looking to grab the attention of audiences, it’s perhaps not the worst thing to be synonymous with motorcycle stunts, even if it makes your heir’s work a bit harder.