Just as Netflix released their trailer for the long-awaited season 3 of its original series, Umbrella Academy, the streaming giant has reached a confidential settlement agreement resolving the copyright lawsuit brought by an artist over one of the show’s characters. In 2021, a professional comic illustrator, Kevin Atkinson, brought a lawsuit against Netflix alleging that A.J. Carmichael, a fishbowl-headed character from Umbrella Academy, is strikingly similar to Kingfish, a character in his series Rogue Satellite Comic that appeared as early as 1996.
Both characters are villains who have a fishbowl atop of a humanoid body. Umbrella Academy was adapted for TV from a comic book series of the same name by Gerard Way, released in 2007-2008.
To establish a copyright infringement claim, Atkinson must show that the infringers had access to his copyrighted work prior to the creation of A.J. Carmichael’s character. Where access cannot be shown, Atkinson could also show copyright infringement by showing a striking similarity between the two works of art.
Though Atkinson’s work is more than ten years senior to Way’s print series, the district court Judge found that the creators of Umbrella Academy did not have access to and had not seen Atkinson’s art during the creation of the character. In addition, the court went on to say that the storylines of each character were not comparable. Soon after, the district court granted Netflix’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and the parties reached a settlement.
These types of cases are seemingly a double-edged sword. Had the court found a striking similarity between the characters, Atkinson could hold a monopoly on fishbowl-headed, villainous characters, therefore posing a restriction in the creative world. Alternatively, by not finding a similarity, are we failing to protect copyright owners who spend a great deal of time and effort creating their works?