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Gilbert-Daniels v. Lionsgate Entertainment Corp.

District court grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to playwright’s copyright infringement claim over use of her musical stage play Soul Kittens Cabaret in defendants’ television drama series P-Valley, finding no substantial similarities between works.

Plaintiff playwright Nicole Gilbert-Daniels created a work titled Soul Kittens Cabaret, which consisted of 2006 and 2010 musical stage play scripts and a 2014 motion picture. Defendants Lionsgate Entertainment and Starz Entertainment created and distributed a television show titled P-Valley, which premiered in 2020. Plaintiff alleged a variety of similarities in plots, themes, mood and characters between the works—both of which involved the business of cabarets or strip clubs and the associated business and personal relationships. 

Soul Kittens Cabaret takes place in Detroit, Michigan, at a nightclub with that name. The club is owned by a gay man named Tata Burlesque, who inherited it from his deceased lover. The antagonist is Tata’s lover’s son, who attempts to take over the nightclub and sell it to casino developers. P-Valley takes place in the fictional town of Chualissa, Mississippi, at a nightclub named Pynk, which is owned by a gender-fluid nonbinary person named Uncle Clifford, who inherited it from their grandmother. Pynk was previously run as a juke joint. Clifford turned it into a nightclub in order to increase profits and pay off loans.

Plaintiff alleged that P-Valley infringed her copyrights, and she filed suit on Jan. 12, 2022. The court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, holding no reasonable jury could find substantial similarity between Soul Kittens Cabaret and P-Valley.

The court first laid out the test for substantial similarity, which requires filtering out unprotectable elements of the works and then comparing the remaining elements for similarities.

The court then analyzed the plots of the two works. The court recognized that the idea of a story about performers at a strip club was not protectable—and neither was the idea of a strip club staffed primarily by Black dancers. Further, the use of neon-pink signage outside a strip club was an unprotectable scene a faire. The court distinguished the remaining plot elements. Plaintiff characterized the plots of the two works as “Gender fluid owner of an erotic dance and performance venue inherited from loved ones. Both owners are working to save their venues from a takeover by a homophobic antagonist, who uses an ‘inside man’ to help acquire the land for Casino Developments.” The court disagreed with this characterization. While Tata was gay, Clifford was nonbinary, which the court explained are different identities. While the antagonist in Soul Kittens Cabaret, Frank, was motivated by his homophobic animus, the antagonist in P-Valley, Mayor Ruffin, was motivated by profit and political power. The court also distinguished the “chain of events” in the two works. In Soul Kittens Cabaret, Frank attempted to manipulate Tata and the dancers into violating certain “commandments,” which would lead to the forfeiture of Tata’s ownership of the cabaret. On the other hand, the plot in P-Valley was “far more mundane,” as Pynk was facing foreclosure due to its owner’s inability to pay back their loans.

The court disagreed that both Tata and Clifford “inherited the club from a loved one so it holds sentimental value.” The cabaret in Soul Kittens Cabaret was well established when Tata took it over, but Clifford had to “radically re-envision” the property in P-Valley. Last,  the prospect of casino development played a prominent role in P-Valley, whereas it was mentioned only in passing in Soul Kittens Cabaret.

The court then analyzed the themes of the two works. Plaintiff alleged the works had the following themes in common: “(i) addressing and challenging societal constructs of morality and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people in a strip-club environment that has historically been deemed sinful/bad, and (ii) reflecting on the choices that the women dancers make as mothers, daughters, partners, and independent-people to navigate personal, societal, and religious expectations.” The court filtered out the second theme, noting that it is too generic and that it naturally flows from a strip club setting. In considering the first theme, the court recognized that Soul Kittens Cabaret’s “evaluation of its characters is significantly more rooted in religious faith,” while P-Valley “does not evaluate its characters through a religious lens”—rather, the “strength of PV’s characters comes not from their faith, but from their hard work and entrepreneurial acumen.”

As to dialogue, the court found that no dialogue survived the filtration analysis, as the only dialogue in both consisted of common phrases or expressions, such as introducing one’s name in the manner of “[First name] ... [First name] [Last name],” calling an LGBT individual a “freak” and saying “Let her go” in a hostage situation.

As to mood, plaintiff described the mood of both works as “sexy, with a noir look & feel using the Lavender, Purples, and Mauve color pallette.” The court opined that mood does not properly encapsulate the use of a purple color palette, and even if it did, using such colors flows naturally from a strip club setting. A “sexy” mood was also inherent in such a setting, the court explained. The “noir” mood, however, was not filtered out, since it did not naturally flow from a strip club setting. But the court distinguished the mood of the works, finding that Soul Kittens Cabaret is “light and uplifting,” while P-Valley is more appropriately described as “noir” due to its cynical and traumatized characters and emphasis on political corruption and greed.

As to the setting, plaintiff first argued that both works are set in “erotic venues with scantily clad, provocatively dressed, dancing women.” The court found this to be unprotectable under the merger doctrine—which prevents protection when an idea underlying the copyrighted work can be expressed in only one way. The court then found that the settings of “chairs, tables, LED lit stairs to stage, archway with beaded curtains stage left, and the bar positioned stage left [and d]ancers work[ing] the stage while on stage with musical performers” were scenes a faire. And even if these settings survived the filtration test, the court determined that the cabaret in Soul Kittens Cabaret is “well lit, clean, and spacious,” while Pynk is “dirty, crowded, loud, and dark.”

As to pace, the court agreed with plaintiff that both works span two to three months and are not scenes a faire associated with a strip club setting. However, the court noted that the pace of Soul Kittens Cabaret frequently slowed in order to present musical interludes in which characters demonstrate their feelings, which did not occur in P-Valley. Further, Soul Kittens Cabaret’s narrative is constricted to a two-hour format, while P-Valley is presented in eight one-hour segments.

The court then found no substantial similarities between the works’ various characters. The court criticized plaintiff’s “blatant mischaracterizations” of the work’s main characters, including their motivations for working at the nightclubs. While Brandy in Soul Kittens Cabaret had ambitions of being a star, P-Valley’s Haley was just trying to make ends meet after leaving an abusive relationship and escaping a hurricane.

While the antagonist in Soul Kittens Cabaret, was “emotionally volatile,” P-Valley’s antagonist  was “calmer and shrewder.” Further, the court recognized that because LGBT characters have gained prominence in Hollywood, the fact that both Tata and Clifford are members of the LGBT community becomes “less probative of substantial similarity because the depiction of such identities is now afforded thinner protection.” The court also found no substantial similarities between each work’s other stock characters, such as a veteran mentor-performer at a strip club and a club bouncer falling in love with a performer.

Plaintiff’s final theory was that even if the elements in common were not protectable, the sequence and arrangement of those elements were duplicated by defendants. The court disagreed, and it found that plaintiff merely conjured up random similarities across the beginnings, middles and ends of the competing works.

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Alexander Loh