‘The Shape of Water’ Gets Hit with a Copyright Infringement Suit

The Oscar nominated film that has critics buzzing, The Shape of Water, made headlines last month for another reason. On February 21, the estate of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Central District against Fox Searchlight, Guillermo del Toro, and others associated with the film. The Zindel estate argues that The Shape of Water, a fantasy/science fiction love story that was nominated for 13 Oscars, is a “rip-off” of a 1969 play by Zindel called Let Me Hear You Whisper.


According to Paul Zindel’s son, David Zindel, there are “glaring similarities” between the play and the motion picture. The play depicts a “lonely janitorial cleaning woman” who falls in love with an “aquatic creature of advanced intelligence” and begins a loving relationship. When she learns that authorities at the laboratory plan to kill the creature, she plans his escape and releases him into the ocean. Moreover, there are other memorable elements that the movie shares with the play, such as a “decapitated cat,” “severed fingers” and the use of the term “vivisection,” to name a few. The Plaintiff’s complaint includes 14 pages of side by side “overwhelming similarities” between the play and the motion picture.


The lawsuit also claims that the film’s producer, Daniel Kraus, who pitched the concept for the film to del Toro, is “an admirer of Zindel’s work, and came up with the ‘idea’ of the Picture the very year the A&E production of Zindel’s Play first aired on national television.” The Plaintiff’s complaint goes on to note that the Defendants did not seek a license from the Plaintiff nor did they credit Zindel in any way.


Fox Searchlight issued a statement stating: “[the] claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit and we will be filing a motion to dismiss. Furthermore, the estate’s complaint seems timed to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle. Instead, we will vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film.”

Ashley Cullins, “‘The Shape of Water’ Sparks Copyright Lawsuit Amid Oscar Voting” Hollywood Reporter (February 21, 2018), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/shape-water-sparks-copyright-lawsuit-oscar-voting-1087249

Legal Entertainment, “Oscar Front-Runner ‘Shape of Water’ Accused Of Plagiarizing 1969 Play” Forbes (February 22, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/legalentertainment/2018/02/22/oscar-front-runner-shape-of-water-accused-of-plagiarizing-1969-play/#5c2bf1881b3a

Nardine Saad & Christie D’Zurilla, “Oscar Contender ‘The Shape of Water’ Facing Copyright Infringement Lawsuit” LA Times (February 26, 2018), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-shape-of-water-copyright-lawsuit-20180226-story.html

Jill Serjeant, “Oscars So Scandalous: Leading Movies Hit With Backlash” Reuters (February 26, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-awards-oscars-scandal/oscars-so-scandalous-leading-movies-hit-with-backlash-idUSKCN1GA1K2

“The Shape of Water (2017) IMDb (22 December 2017), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5580390/

Complaint for Copyright Infringement & Demand for Jury Trial, Zindel v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc, et al., No. 2:18-CV-01435 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 21, 2018).