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Changing the World Films LLC v. Lee

District court dismisses copyright lawsuit against filmmakers Spike Lee and Nate Parker claiming that Parker’s 2019 movie American Skin copied material from plaintiffs’ screenplay A Routine Stop, for lack of personal jurisdiction.  

Plaintiffs Selton and Langston Shaw and their entertainment company Changing the World Films LLC brought copyright claims against filmmakers Spike Lee and Nate Parker as well as other defendants involved in the production and promotion of Parker’s 2019 film American Skin, alleging that defendants copied material from plaintiffs’ screenplay A Routine Stop, which they had submitted to a screenplay competition hosted by T.V. One in 2017. American Skin was released two years later at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. While Lee neither directed nor acted in the film, his name appears in the credits (the film is styled as “A Spike Lee Presentation”) and he promoted American Skin at the festival. Plaintiffs alleged direct, vicarious and contributory copyright infringement claims. 

On defendants’ motion, and after limited jurisdictional discovery, the district court dismissed the case without prejudice, finding that it lacked personal jurisdiction over any of the defendants. Plaintiffs conceded that the court lacked general jurisdiction and focused instead on case-linked personal jurisdiction. More specifically, plaintiffs claimed that Parker and defendants transacted business in Washington, D.C., and that they committed a tort inside the district. Plaintiffs did not allege that the film was shown in Washington, D.C., but rather that defendants “directed their promotional activities” for the film to D.C. residents. The court concluded, however, that the alleged activity did not rise to the level of conducting business in D.C., because “it only included two remote press interviews Parker gave to Howard University and the Roland Martin Unfiltered Show.” Plaintiffs’ claim that there was D.C.-targeted social media advertising also fell flat, as they failed to provide evidence that defendants did any such targeted advertising. Even if defendants derived film revenue from D.C. residents, courts require there to be a “plus factor” showing additional business ties to the jurisdiction. Plaintiffs could not make this showing, nor could plaintiffs show that defendants derived enough revenue to indicate a commercial impact on the district such that they could be expected to be hauled into court there. 

The court likewise rejected plaintiffs’ argument in support of jurisdiction over Lee, finding that plaintiffs had failed to allege that the filmmaker transacted any business related to the suit in D.C. Plaintiffs asserted that three activities by Lee involving the district: promoting the film; serving on the advisory board for the American Film Institute’s annual documentary festival, which is held the district; and traveling to D.C. on Dec. 16, 2022, to promote a newly published book on his career as a filmmaker. Noting that the latter two activities were not related to the subject of the litigation and are therefore irrelevant to the jurisdictional analysis, the court turned to Lee’s activities in promoting American Skin and found them insufficient to constitute transacting business in D.C., because none of Lee’s promotional activities were directed toward D.C. or its residents. Lee agreed to and did promote the film in connection with its screening at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. The court found that Lee’s activities were insufficient to establish that he “purposefully availed himself” of doing business in the district. The court also concluded that plaintiffs offered “scant evidence of the requisite ‘plus factor,’” noting plaintiffs’ “bare allegations” of Lee’s singular travel to D.C. in December 2021, his position on the advisory board for a festival traditionally held in D.C., and conclusory allegations that he “derived substantial revenues” from the district from showings of the film—all of which were insufficient to support personal jurisdiction.  

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Shannon Gonyou