In Tangled, the recent Disney movie based on the famous fairy tale “Rapunzel,” an evil sorceress kidnaps Princess Rapunzel from her fair kingdom for her magic hair.

Joe Alter, a visual effects developer in Southern California, is asserting that The Walt Disney Company has pulled a similar stunt, hijacking his digital hair-rendering technology, according to a complaint filed Sept. 30 in District Court of Central California.

The Westlake Village resident claims Disney “reverse engineered” his technology, tweaking it along the way to help bring to life animated characters in Toy Story 3, Up, Finding Nemo and some of its other blockbuster films of late. He declined to speculate on whether the company copied his technology. Given Disney’s size and scope, Alter says, the infringement “will create a multi million dollar hole in [his] income and will dilute his brand.”

“It’s a giant corporation that’s made a lot of money with my ideas and is now going to put me out of business, essentially,” Alter told The Patent Examiner during a phone call.

Alter, Founder and CEO of Joseph Alter, Inc, patented his invention in 2000 under the title, “Hair generation and other natural phenomena with surface derived control volumes in computer graphics and animation.” (No. 6,720,962.) It’s the only patent Alter holds. The technology, which Alter dubs “Shave and a Haircut,” can also be used to generate lifelike grass, feathers and trees for films, commercials and games, and is employed in visual effects studios around the world. His customers include Pixar, Lucas Digital Ltd, Dreamworks SKG, Electronic Arts and Microsoft Games.

Alter claims his technology, which he pioneered in 1999, solved the animated hair conundrum the motion effects industry had grappled with for years. The son of a patent attorney, Alter is representing himself in the case – pro se – because of the intricacies of the technologies involved. Alter cites the development of a “coordinate system framework” that uses “transformation matrices” that “flex with the hair as it moves around” as the key components that set his invention apart. Prior to his technique, developers used “incremental engineering related to speed, rendering and applied physics,” according to the complaint.

Alter admits in the complaint that “this might seem like a trivial issue,” then adds, “however if you put Toy Story beside virtually any animated or visual effects film made in the last 10 years, it is quite apparent that this kind of high detail is principally what’s different 17 years later. It was for many years a highly sought after goal in the industry.”

In a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from September of 2006, Marc Petit, vice president and general manager of Autodesk Media and Entertainment recommended Shave and a Haircut for a Scientific Achievements Award.

Alter’s “toolset has without question advanced the state of the art in this field and has brought original research and a very advanced capability to a broad section of the industry,” Petit wrote. Autodesk, based in San Rafael, is one of the largest developers of commercial three-dimension design programs.

Alter’s suspicions were triggered in August when Disney announced at the 2011 SIGGRAPH Conference in Vancouver, Canada, that the company would license its homegrown hair-animation software – called XGen – to Autodesk.

“At that point I thought, I really have to look at this more closely,” Alter said. Pouring over more materials from the conference persuaded Alter to take his concerns to Disney.

Stuart Langley, executive counsel patents at Disney, responded in a letter on Aug. 18, stating that although Alter’s patent and XGen “share the objective of growing and grooming hair, the similarity appears to end there.” Alter’s patent claims and XGen draw on “very different techniques,” Langley concluded.

Alter followed up with an email containing specific queries about the company’s technology. An email chain included in Alter’s complaint shows Langley assuring Alter a response to his questions in August but not delivering before Alter filed suit at the end of September. Alter said Langley responded Oct. 5 “basically [saying], ‘We’re not doing this,’” then suggested that Disney might counter sue Alter for “wasting their time.” Alter declined to show The Patent Examiner that correspondence.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

In a few instances in the complaint, Alter pontificates about the nature and purpose of patents, at times veering into hyperbole:

“The US patent office was not created to protect expedience – it was created to protect innovation from the gears of commerce allowing innovators to be rewarded for their discoveries. Protecting this patent serves the greater public good in that the conflict arises from a major multinational corporation that [Alter] feels is about to ‘squash him under its heels and then beat him over the head with his own invention’.”

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A copy of the complaint is here.

Supporting materials submitted with the complaint are here.

 

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