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IP Dispute Over Digital Animation May Shutter Films

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 29, 2016 1:14 PM

A legal dispute over the motion detector technology that brought you the Benjamin Button and Harry Potter films could end up preventing the distribution of future animation-enhanced movies. The technology, called Mova, allows filmmakers to capture an actors' performance, then digitally edit it "in post."

Now, a lawsuit over ownership of the technology has led a San Francisco-based tech incubator, Rearden, to seek an injunction against the distribution of films it claims are made by allegedly infringing its patents and trademarks, which include films like Deadpool, Terminator Genisys, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It's a legal drama fit for the silver screen.

An Animated Dispute

Mova's performance motion capture technology was first introduced in 2006, allowing for "cinema-quality" facial animation. The tech finally made it to screen in 2008, in The Incredible Hulk and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It has been used plenty of super hero blockbusters, two Harry Potter films, and even Gravity. Mova won an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement in 2015.

But ownership of that tech is a bit ... contentious. On one side, there is Rearden, the SF-tech incubator where Mova was created, and Steve Perlman, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who also claims to be responsible for Mova's founding, tech lead, optics, sensors, psychophysics, finance, optics, and more.

On the other side, there's Shenzhenshi Haitiecheng Science and Technology Company, which is connected to the Hollywood special effects firm Digital Domain.

Shenzhenshi sued Rearden last year, alleging that Rearden had wrongly claimed ownership of the technology and accusing the company of false advertising, unfair competition, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. According to Shenzhenshi, they purchased the Mova technology from Rearden employee Greg LaSalle, who then went on to become director of visual development at Digital Domain.

Will There Be No Deadpool 2?

Rearden has a slightly different account, alleging that LaSalle's attempts to sell Mova to Shenzhenshi were improper. In its countersuit, Rearden accuses Shenzhenshi and Digital Domain of a suit of patent and trademark violations. Perhaps most importantly, though, -- at least for the movie-going public -- Rearden is also seeking to block the distribution of movies made with Digital Domain effects.

That relief may be hard to gain, however. Travis Thomas, an IP attorney with Baker Botts, told The New York Times that such an outcome was possible, but it would be a "long shot" for Rearden.

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