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Story highlights

The film is up for a best picture Oscar

Studio said in a statement the suit has no merit

(CNN) —  

One of the Oscar frontrunners has been slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit.

David Zindel is alleging the creators behind “The Shape of Water” plagiarized the play “Let Me Hear You Whisper,” which was written by his late father, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel.

According to the suit, the 1969 play “tells the story of a lonely janitorial cleaning woman who works the graveyard shift at a scientific laboratory facility that performs animal experiments for military use.”

“She becomes fascinated by a fantastic intelligent aquatic creature, held captive in a glass tank,” the suit states. “To the sounds of romantic vintage music playing on a record player, she forms a deep, loving bond with the creature, discovering that it can communicate – but chooses to do so only with her.”

“The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in what Fox Searchlight calls “an other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962.”

“In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation,” the studio’s description of the film reads. “Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.”

Zindel is seeking a jury trial against the studio, the film’s director Guillermo Del Toro and associate producer Daniel Kraus, who are credited with conceiving the movie.

“The Shape of Water” is one of the contenders for the Academy Award for best picture. Zindel has argued there are more than 60 similarities between the film and his father’s play.

Related: Oscar nominations are here: Did your favorite films make the cut?

“My dad was a chemistry teacher before he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning author,” Zindel said in a statement to CNN. “He was always so generous with his time to help and inspire students, teachers, librarians, and other writers; so it came as a total shock to us that his original work would be so blatantly and extensively taken.”

Zindel said people on social media first brought the alleged similarities to his attention.

“This troubling matter was raised with Fox five weeks ago but was met with inertia,” he said. “The glaring similarities between the film and our father’s play are too extensive for us to ignore and so we had to act.”

The film’s director is refuting the claim.

“I have never read nor seen the play,” del Toro told Deadline. “I’d never heard of this play before making ‘The Shape of Water,’ and none of my collaborators ever mentioned the play.”

He also questioned the timing of the suit, coming as members of the Academy are voting.

“It’s pretty transparent what is happening here,” he told Deadline. “To me, it’s actually a relief to take something from the arena of opinion into the arena of fact and law.”

Fox Searchlight offered a statement to Deadline in support of the director and the film.

“These claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit and we will be filing a motion to dismiss,” the studio said in a statement. “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.”

CNN has reached out to del Toro, Kraus and Fox Searchlight for comment.

The 90th Academy Awards are March 4.