By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
The owner of a copyright in a dance competition reality show failed to provide a factual basis for his claim that Jennifer Lopez, her production company and NBC copied his treatment when creating World of Dance.
After determining that it lack personal jurisdiction over Jennifer Lopez and her production company, a federal district court in Detroit, Michigan, ruled that the owner of a copyright in a reality dance competition show called Let’s Start the Dance failed to plausibly alleged that (1) either the producers of World of Dance or Debbie Allen and her production company to whom the treatment had been pitched had access to his dance show concept such that they could infringe his copyright, and (2) World of Dance was substantially similar to the copyright holder’s treatment. Based on these rulings, the district court dismissed the complaint, which had sought $6.5 million in damages (Gray-EL v. Lopez, March 5, 2020, Leitman, M.).
Alvin Gray-EL, the owner of a copyright in a treatment for a reality dance competition show called Let’s Start the Dance, sued Jennifer Lopez, her production company Nuyorican Productions, Inc., and NBC Universal Studios Corporation, Inc., alleging that their show World of Dance directly infringed his copyright. He also sued Debbie Allen and her production company Freeze Frame Entertainment for secondary infringement on the ground that they wrongfully distributed his dance competition treatment to Lopez, her production company, and NBC. The copyright owner sought $6.5 million in damages. Lopez, Nuyorican Productions, and NBS moved to dismiss the complaint. A magistrate judge recommended dismissal of the action on two grounds (1) lack of personal jurisdiction over Lopez and her production company and (2) the copyright holder’s failure to allege with sufficiency that the named defendants had either directly or indirectly copied the treatment for Let’s Start the Dance. The magistrate judge also recommended, sua sponte, that the claims against Allen and Freeze Frame be dismissed. Despite the copyright holder’s timely objections, the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommended disposition and dismissed the complaint against all defendants.
Personal jurisdiction. The copyright ownerhad argued that the district court had personal jurisdiction over Lopez and her production company because they had performed at and/or produced live events in the state of Michigan. The fact that Lopez had appeared in Michigan in 2019 for a single concert did not establish personal jurisdiction over her for the purpose of this copyright action. A single appearance in a state could not serve as a basis for general personal jurisdiction, the court explained, adding that the contact must be directly and substantially related to the copyright claim. In an unrebutted sworn statement, Lopez stated that her 2019 concert was not related to World of Dance and, thus, the concert could not form the basis for personal jurisdiction. It also could not serve as a basis for personal jurisdiction over her production company because the copyright owner presented no evidence to show that the company had played any role or had been involved in the concert tour which included the single concert in Michigan.
Similarly, the fact that two live World of Dance shows were performed in Michigan were insufficient to establish jurisdiction over Lopez and her production company because there was no evidence that they had any involvement with those live events.
Access. In support of his argument that, contrary to the magistrate judge’s conclusion, he had stated a viable copyright claim, the copyright owner argued that all the defendants had access to his copyrighted treatment in Let’s Start the Dance. Specifically, the copyright owner had alleged that he had faxed the copyrighted work to one of Allen’s representatives and had communicated with her production company about the treatment over the course of seven years. The copyright owner also had alleged that the copyrighted material had been passed through several hands during those seven years and eventually had been transferred into the possession of Lopez, her production company, and NBC.
The court rejected these arguments, finding that the complaint failed to plausibly allege that Lopez, her production company, or NBC somehow had obtained access to his treatment from Allen and/or her production company. Nor was it plausibly alleged that Allen or someone at her production company had used certain hardware or software tools to intercept and steal his treatment, as was stated in his objections, so it could pass it on to Lopez and the other defendants.
Substantial similarity. The district court also agreed with the magistrate judge’s conclusion that the copyright owner could not state a cognizable copyright claim based on his allegations that his treatment for Let’s Start the Dance was substantially similar to World of Dance. Although the two shows shared many of the same elements, such as auditions, rounds of competition, and an overall similar concept and feel, the comparison drawn by the copyright owner was at the highest level of generality. The copyright owner failed to cite any authority for the proposition that the high-level similarities he cited were sufficient to maintain a viable copyright claim.
This case is No. 4:19-cv-10952-MFL-MJH.
Attorneys: Alvin Gray-El, pro se. Deborah J. Swedlow (Honigman LLP) for Jennifer Lopez.
MainStory: TopStory Copyright MichiganNews GCNNews
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