Judge: Bill Nye the Lawsuit Guy


“Walt Disney Co. did not come to the negotiating table, nor did it act in good faith to resolve this dispute.”

— Nye vs. Walt Disney Corp., et. al

“As the company gets bigger, it’s easy to lose what we stand for.”

— Roy Disney

If you’re between the ages of 30 and 45 and you had an even remotely geeky childhood, then chances are that you, like me, can sing the theme song from “Bill Nye the Science Guy” without much effort. (It has only slightly more words than the ’60s Batman theme, so that’s not exactly saying a lot.) The show’s 100 half-hour episodes ran, primarily on PBS, from 1993 to 1999. They were distributed by Walt Disney’s Buena Vista Television and won 19 Emmy Awards, with Nye himself winning once for hosting, once as producer and three times for writing.

Nye has become more of a general science activist in recent years and currently hosts a show on Netflix, but the Science Guy was a children’s educational series. Nye’s mother was a WWII code breaker and his dad spent part of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Nye graduated from Cornell with a BS in mechanical engineering, then worked for ten years at Boeing, during which time he moonlighted as a stand-up comic. It was advice from Carl Sagan that led to him pitching a pure science show to the PBS affiliate in Seattle.

While Nye has taken on some controversial topics in the two decades since Science Guy finished its run, it’s the courtroom, not the classroom, that is his current challenge. That’s because he has decided to face off against his old syndication company — Walt Disney — in court. Suing Walt Disney is a little like starting a land war in Asia. Unless you have a great battle plan and nearly unlimited resources, your chance of success isn’t high.

Disney has a long and well-earned reputation for being overly litigious. Some 25 years ago, even before the internet age made bootlegging and copyright infringement rampant, Newsweek said that Disney would “sue anybody and anything.” Barron’s said they had a reputation as a “bare-knuckled litigator.” The Jim Henson Co. (the Muppet people!) accused them of “sheer corporate arrogance” in another lawsuit.

So why would Nye choose to pick a fight with Disney? Well, to begin with, there’s a heck of a lot of money at stake. Nye says that Disney owes him $9 million in direct profits and another $28 million in distribution fees. That’s thirty-seven million reasons to sue.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Aug. 24, claims that Disney owes Nye 16.5 percent of net profits from the show. It claims that back in 2008 Disney sent Nye a check for $585,123. But then Disney pulled the complex legal maneuver known as “oopsie,” and asked Nye for half a million dollars back.

According to Nye’s attorneys, he attempted to negotiate with Disney, but they did not provide necessary information and stonewalled an attempt to audit the records. Then, Nye claims, they simply stopped paying royalties at all, which is why Nye claims they owe him so much money. Disney, for their part, denies the allegations. The real amount in question is largely up in the air as Nye’s complaint alleges that Disney stonewalled the audit process for more than four years and then refused to provide documentation that would allow the auditors to determine the actual amount that would be owed to Nye under the distribution agreements signed in the early 1990s.

Nye’s complaint demands a jury trial and it’s likely that both sides will want to avoid the public spectacle that a jury trial would become. Still, given that the parties have been unable to negotiate this matter over a nine-year period, finding a mutually agreeable resolution in this matter may prove difficult. Disney has not yet filed an answer in the case and no hearings are currently scheduled.

While we’re all waiting for the Science Guy and the Mouse to work out their differences, you can find 31 of the 100 Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes streaming on Netflix.

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David Hejmanowski

Contributing Columnist

David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.