Whose High School Musical?

Over the festive season, the BBC decided to screen the phenomenon of 2006 – High School Musical, a Disney production that took the teenage world (or perhaps just the female portion of it) by storm.  I sat down to watch it, not entirely sure what to expect, and found it to mildly entertaining with one annoyingly catchy song and a couple of fairly clever set pieces set in the school canteen and gym.  I can see why teenage girls love it, and thus being neither a teen nor a female, it’s hardly surprising that I didn’t find it quite so thrilling.  I am pleased it exists, though.  It has a better moral message than that other teen favourite, Grease (the opposite message in fact – Grease says ‘conform to get the guy’, High School Musical says ‘be yourself’).  And the inevitable, very swift release of a stage version for amateur performance should hopefully encourage more youngsters to get involved in live theatre.  I dread to think how many productions of the show will spring up in America this year.  It’s also nice to see a musical do so well in the music charts, even getting a top 10 single in both the US and the UK with ‘Breaking Free’.

Having watched the film, and decided that I have no need to buy the soundtrack or the DVD, I was interested to discover that the success of High School Musical is causing a bit of a stir with regard to intellectual property.  A man named Paul Cozby has filed a lawsuit against the Disney Corporation (which is terribly brave of him), as he feels they stole his idea.  He wrote a stage show called High School Musical a few years ago, which received a number of productions in Texas, and he feels that as well as the title being identical, the film shows a striking resemblance to his own work.

A report from 2005 in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram shows that his version does indeed predate Disney’s, and Cozby’s show even has its own basic website at highschoolmusical.com, where you can read a synopsis and listen to some of the music (though this doesn’t work on my PC, so the site clearly has a grudge against librarians).  However, these two sites have led me to the conclusion that these are two very different musicals.  The similarities basically begin and end with the title and the basic plot thread of a high school sports star getting involved in a musical, which is itself not exactly a new idea and indeed is something that happens quite regularly, in the UK at least.  The structures of the plots are based on different sources.  Disney’s is a non-violent Romeo and Juliet, while Cozby’s is inspired by Cyrano.  His is far more complex, as well, with a Machiavellian head teacher deliberately causing most of the problems rather than a spoilt brother and sister throwing a tantrum when things don’t go their way.  In addition, Cozby deals with the whole production, getting into the inevitable backstage musical theme of life on-stage mirroring life off-stage, while Disney are concerned only with the audition process – we don’t even get a hint of the plot of Twinkle Town, which is probably a good thing.

Cozby may well have a case, but I don’t know enough about the legal ins and outs to tell.  How much of an idea or a plot has to be the same before you can be said to be infringing intellectual property rights?  I can’t imagine that he has a hope of winning anything from Disney over the issue, as Davids don’t often win over Goliaths in the legal world.  The endless parade of spin-offs (a concert tour, special edition DVDs, books, an upcoming sequel) will no doubt be a constant irritation to the Cozby family until the matter is settled.  One can only hope that a way can be found for the two High School Musicals to coexist peacefully.

    • Phil
    • January 3rd, 2007

    I didn’t watch the film (sounds like it’s a good thing I didn’t) but I did get a copy of the score for one of my nieces who is quite taken by it I’m told. Then again she is part of that female, young teen target market.

  1. As most of the ‘themes’ for this musical are ones taken from a rich tradition, e.g boy and girl like each other but are complete opposites, fate looks as if it will keep them apart, two rival gangs – the ‘jocks’ and the ‘swots’, ‘evil’ couple plotting against the two lovers, etc, etc, it would be hard for anyone to claim, I think, that Disney had stolen their ideas (except Shakespeare perhaps). You can see from this that I am a sad deluded person who has watched this film more than once. My addiction was started by my niece, but now I am afraid the continuing shame is all mine.

  2. Haven’t seen it – but your assessment of who likes it is spot on. I probably never would have heard about it unless my 13 years old daughter had come home raving about it and taping it from TV (required my assistance) the day after having seen it at friends’ … 😉

    • Treavor
    • January 10th, 2007

    Thanks for your post. I’ve not seen “High School Musical” but there’s already a production in the works at our local professonal theatre company, Zachary Scott Theatre. It will no doubt attract a lot of teens who love the music(al). The legal debacle reminds me of the same issues that came-up when RENT became so successful on Broadway. Sarah Schulman claims it is based off her novel, “People in Trouble” (http://feministspectator.blogspot.com/2005/11/sarah-schulman-and-plight-of-women.html), but it can be very difficult to prove plagiarism, and usually (and unfortunately) the one who files the claims can come off looking paraniod and disturbed (perhaps rightly so).

    • DMT
    • January 27th, 2007

    I have never seen neither the play nor the television movie, so I am not exactly sure of all the similarities. I do, however, know one of the people who starred in the play. I have not discussed the issue with him much, but I do know that disney would in no way suffer if they had to share their profits. They were aware of the play before this suite when they tried to purchase the website from the Cozbys. It surprises me though that disney would actually have a successful, low-budget, television movie, after years of unsuccessful ones. Although I agree that is getting ridiculous to come up with any original ideas these days, and that there are bound to be similarities between various products and ideas, these two things just seem to similar to me to not be more than coincidence. Especially since a huge company as disney should know better than to not make sure that such an idea already exist. I may be slightly biased, but I think disney was doing just fine before their “High School Musical”, and would not be mortally wounded if they lost this case.

    • DMT
    • January 27th, 2007

    “to similar” should be “too similar”

  3. As I said, I haven’t read or seen the play, so I can’t judge whether Bozby really has a case or not. Somehow, I suspect that the first Disney knew of the musical was when they tried to get the web address and found it was already in use.

    I’m sure that Disney would not be hurt if it had to share the profits, but the question still remains – do they have any reason or obligation to do so? Without seeing scripts of both (or preferably being able to observe Disney’s initial development meetings for their HSM) it’s impossible to say.

    • EthosPathos
    • February 1st, 2007

    Just to throw in opinion here, but it seems to me that with all the resources Disney has at their disposable, if they had really been on top of the ball they would have known about the Cozby’s HSM long before they tried to reigistered the domain name. After all, I’m sure if one was to google High School Musical (prior to Disney’s release/success) the Cozby’s version would be on the list. I would think that Disney’s research/publicity team would want to make sure they were covered from every angle.

    So…either Disney’s investigation into similar works was very, very poor, or they simply thought they could get away with claiming the underdog’s show as their own.

    Either way Disney’s the one made the poor move.

  4. Actually, my experience of attempted information retrieval from the internet suggests that might not be true – I’m a librarian, remember, so finding information is my thing. I reckon if you had googled high school musical before Disney’s version came out, you probably would have found Cozby’s show, but it would be buried in the middle of:

    – information about Craig Carnelia’s musical ‘Is There Life After High School?’

    – guides and advice about suitable musicals to perform at high school

    – reviews of and information about the musicals performed at high schools across the USA

    – information about musical activities in high schools – choirs, marching bands, even lessons

    And possible more. I have found pages where each of those senses appears, including the phrase ‘high school musical’, often on commercial, high-traffic sites which would appear near the top of Google listings. It seems very possible for Disney not to have found any references to it. Doesn’t excuse ignorance on their part, but could certainly explain it.

    • HSM
    • February 4th, 2007

    The similarities between the two HSMs go beyond the title and Jocks v. Actors plot. Both versions have a floopy female theatre teacher and a stubborn coach who are at each others’ throats. They also both have a lead male who is the star athlete and in the school musical, as well as a stuck-up, blonde diva. In both versions, the “big game” and the musical production are taking place at the exact same time (though in Disney’s, it is the try-outs for the musical). In Cozby’s musical, the way the star athlete is able to make it to the show is that they turn off the football stadium lights to bide time. This is replicated in Disney’s, when the basketball arena lights are turned off so that the star athlete can make it to the audition.

    you be the judge…

    • B
    • February 6th, 2007

    Actually, the official site, http://www.highschoolmusical.com, followed by some information about the dramatic reading, at fwafa.org came up.

  5. I’m not sure I understand. Were you able to somehow perform a search in the past? Using something like the Wayback Machine (which doesn’t do keyword searches, but is still quite useful)? Genuine question – if such a thing is possible, it could be useful in a professional capacity!

    • EthoPathos
    • February 6th, 2007

    Several people posting on this blog were aware of Cozby’s version prior to Diney’s big release, to answer your question.

    • B
    • February 8th, 2007

    Hahah I wish. No I saw Cozby’s show before Disneys came out, and googled it one day to see what would come up.

  6. Apropos, see this, from today’s Playbill.com: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/107982.html

  7. How intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see what the reception is. It would be great for him if it was able to go further.

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