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Facial Animation Tech Fight: Who Owns Deadpool's Smile?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on February 29, 2016 11:57 AM

Animated characters today can make facial expressions that are as subtle as those of a human actor. That's because people do make those expressions and increasingly sophisticated technology is used to translate these into animation. Think of the films "Deadpool" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Now, in a very convoluted lawsuit, the ownership of Mova, a facial animation program, is being challenged, according to the New York Times. The technology won a technical Academy Award last year and is at the center of a copyright and patent dispute that could lead to a court blocking distribution of movies that use it. Let's look at some details.

A Long Shot

Shenzhenshi Haitiecheng Science and Technology Company, affiliated with the Hollywood visual effects company Digital Domain, last year sued Rearden, a San Francisco technology incubator founded by Steve Perlman, a "Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur." Now Rearden has countersued and seeks to block distribution of films that infringe on Mova technology.

But don't worry. According to experts, it's extremely unlikely that a court will grant Rearden's request for injunctive relief, meaning an order to block film distribution.

Rearden seeks financial damages and to stop distribution of movies and other entertainment that it says were made by infringing on Mova patents and trademarks. Travis W. Thomas, an intellectual-property lawyer at Baker Botts, told reporters it was conceivable that a court could eventually block the distribution of the movies, but that it was a "long shot" for Rearden.

Don't Move a Muscle

The short story is that Steve Perlman, Rearden founder, claims that he owns the technology, which uses phosphorescent powder on actors' faces and special software to recreate lifelike expressions in animated film characters. Meanwhile the plaintiff Chinese company argues that Perlman sold the software and is only now interested in it because of its recent success, namely the Academy Award.

The long story is long indeed, and the latest filing by Rearden won't likely lead to a rapid conclusion. For now, rest assured, we'll still get to see our movies.

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