Castaway Damages: Robinson Sucroë v. Robinson Curiosité

Castaway Damages: Robinson Sucroë v. Robinson Curiosité

Andrew Baker is an LLB/BCL candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law.

The Quebec Court of Appeal has recently ruled on the notorious Robinson Sucroë cartoon plagiarism case.  The decision has greatly reduced the remarkable damages awarded by the trial court in 2009, but upholds the finding of liability.

Illustrator, Claude Robinson had been embroiled in a legal battle against France Animation and Cinar Films, among others, regarding a cartoon series that he created in 1982 entitled Robinson Curiosité.  Robinson claimed that the animated Franco-Quebécois television production, Robinson Sucroë, debuted in 1992, plagiarized his original work.  At trial in 2009, Robinson was successful in proving that the defendants had access to his ideas in the 1980s and that the Robinson Sucroë series was substantially similar to his work with regards to characters and drawings.  In addition to pecuniary damages, Robinson was awarded $1,000,000 in punitive damages and $400,000 in moral damages.

Robinson’s case was based on both the Loi sur le droit d’auteurs (LDA) and the defendants’ extracontractual obligations under the Civil Code of Quebec (CCQ).  The defendants appealed the court’s ruling on numerous grounds which included a charge that the judge erred in the finding of similarity between the works, that the finding of lost profits was inaccurate, and that the non-pecuniary damages awarded were exorbitant.  The Appeal Court agreed with the lower court in finding that Robinson Sucroë was substantially similar to Robinson’s original work, but has reduced the large damages awarded in several instances.

The Appellants (Cinar, et al.) alleged that the trial judge erred in the consideration of exhibit P-18, a series of earlier conceptual works created by Robinson, arguing that the work constituted mere ideas and not a final product constituting an integral part of the Respondent’s (Robinson) actual work, Robinson Curiosité.  The Appeal Court explained that the LDA protects the original expression of an author, not mere ideas.  Nevertheless, even though the work contained in exhibit P-18 was not fully realised, and more precise versions of Robinson’s idea were produced, exhibit P-18 was still protected under the LDA as the production of newer versions did not automatically lead to an abandonment of the authorship right.

The Appellants also argued that the damages awarded for lost profits were inaccurate in that some aspects of Robinson Sucroë, such as the music, were absent from Robinson’s original work.  The Appeal Court agreed in adopting the standard from the patent case, Monsanto v. Schmeiser, which requires that any right to damages for lost profits must stem directly from the infringement.  The music in Robinson Sucroe was found to be an original work, and as such, the award for profits was reduced accordingly.

The Appellants were also partially successful on the issue of moral damages.  The Appeal Court explained that the $400,000 award was entirely non-pecuniary and therefore subject to the limit established in Andrews.  While the court agreed that Robinson was subjected to considerable harm, damages had to be considered within the context of other cases and his injuries did not warrant an award on the high end of the Andrews spectrum.  The Court concluded that 50% of the limit was reasonable, reducing the award to $121,350 (for the application of the Andrews limit see also: Stations de la vallée de St-Sauveur and Syndicat national des employés de l'hôpital St-Ferdinand).

Finally, the Appeal Court also found the punitive damages awarded at trial to be excessive and, in the process, raised some interesting questions about such damages under Quebec law.  Article 1621 CCQ requires that punitive damages be provided by law.  The LDA was silent on the issue at the time of the infringement, but the court determined that a breach of sections 6 and 49 of the Charte des droits et libertés de la personne were sufficient to allow for the awarding of punitive damages. Nevertheless, the trial judge had failed to account for the individual liability of each party for punitive damages which was problematic considering the court must consider the contextual factors of each party in granting such awards.  The Solomon case had set a precedent, citing articles 1480 and 1526 CCQ, that awarding punitive damages in solidarity was not appropriate.  Again, the Appeal Court determined that the Appellants’ appalling behaviour warranted punitive damages, but reduced the amount to $250,000 specifically apportioned in accordance with the damage caused by each party.

The decision upholds many of the principles upon which Claude Robinson originally fought for, but has substantially reduced the damages awarded on many points of law.  Nevertheless it is an interesting example of the complexity involved in awarding damages, even in the instances of blatant plagiarism.