IMDb isn’t obligated to change the release date listed for a film, even though the producer alleges it’s inaccurate, is hurting his ability to distribute it and has been making these requests for years.
Bruce Singman, an attorney who’s representing himself in the matter, in May sued IMDb claiming his science feature film Warrior was stolen by a third party, the site incorrectly lists that person as the distributor and refuses to correct it.
Singman says his Warrior hasn’t been released, but the current listing includes the year 2002 in parentheses alongside the title and he argues that “misleads film distributors and buyers and licensees to believe the rights to exhibit and sell the movie have been sold and licensed since the year 2002.” He says he finished the film in 2002, but it was stolen and sold on Amazon under a different title, Mexican Blow. At some point, IMDb updated the film’s title heading to include the date (likely to avoid confusion with the 2011 Tom Hardy-led movie of the same name) and Singman says his distributor threatened to pull out unless it was corrected.
The attorney began sending “extensive and comprehensive” correspondence to the owners and CEOs of IMDb and its parent Amazon via email, mail and fax, according to his complaint. The company declined to change the year, so Singman sued for $500 million and asked the court to make IMDb change it from 2002 to 2020.
IMDb responded in July with a special motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law, which exists to bring an early end to frivolous litigation arising from the exercise of protected speech.
“Plaintiff’s improper attempt to both censor and force speech on IMDb’s website is precisely the sort of case involving an ‘act in furtherance of a person’s right of . . . free speech’ against which California’s anti-SLAPP statute was designed to protect,” argues Moez Kaba, who nods to the site’s win in a suit demanding that it had to add someone as a film’s producer. “A California Court of Appeals has already held under similar circumstances that IMDb is a ‘public forum’ and the information about films posted on its webpages is protected under California’s anti-SLAPP statute.”
Because the suit clearly arises from protected activity, IMDb argues, Singman must show he’s likely to prevail on his claim. The site says he can’t possibly do that because he’s informed them in writing multiple times over the past two decades that the film’s earliest date of release, the standard the site uses for those dates, is 2002.
“Plaintiff previously informed IMDb in writing on June 27, 2002 that Warrior was selected for and subsequently shown at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival,” writes Kaba, adding that he’s also been selling the film online, had asked the company to change it to 2017 at one point and previously sued in California federal court asking to change the date to “2019 or 2020.” (U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. in May dismissed that suit, finding he lacked jurisdiction, in part, because Singman couldn’t support his claim for damages in excess of the jurisdictional threshold of $75,000.)
“Even if Plaintiff had pled an underlying claim, his request for declaratory relief is time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations,” Kaba continues. “Plaintiff has known for at least seventeen years that the IMDb webpage for Warrior listed the information he now wants removed, including the 2002 release date. His delay in filing this lawsuit is inexcusable.”
The site also argued it has immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act because a third-party posted the film on IMDb and, therefore, it’s not responsible for the content.
Singman responded by arguing the anti-SLAPP statute doesn’t apply because he’s seeking to “correct wrongful and damaging content about his movie.” He also notes that he’s made “continual requests on a regular weekly basis since October of 2018” for the information to be changed and insists his complaint is “factually correct and legally meritorious.”
L.A. County Superior Court Judge Elaine W. Mandel on Thursday issued a tentative ruling, heard arguments on the motion and briefly took the matter under submission before issuing a final ruling. (Read it in full below.)
Mandel agrees that case law holds IMDb is a public forum and posts constitute free speech under the anti-SLAPP statute and finds that Singman “provides no authority for the proposition that statements made in a public forum are not protected if they are ‘false and misleading.'”
She continues, “The burden then shifts to plaintiff to prove – with evidence admissible at trial – a reasonable probability he will prevail. Plaintiff fails to do so. He submits no evidence, via declaration or otherwise. The sole cause of action alleged, for declaratory relief, is not supported by any evidence. Plaintiff submitted no evidence that any of the content on the web site is incorrect or inaccurate.”