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Dixon v. NPG Music Publishing, LLC

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 6, 2017





         This is one in a series of actions brought by pro se Plaintiff Rodney Herachio Dixon against Prince Rogers Nelson (“Prince”), entities related to Prince, and successors-in-interest to Prince, claiming that he authored all of Prince's songs and is owed a billion or more dollars under a licensing agreement. Before the Court are Defendants NPG Music Publishing, LLC (“NPG Publishing”), NPG Records Inc. (“NPG Records”), and Comerica Bank and Trust's (“Comerica”) (collectively “Defendants”) motions to dismiss and to deem Plaintiff a vexatious litigant. (ECF Nos. 30, 39.) For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS both motions.


         Plaintiff is a self-described songwriter and “producer of musical compositions.” (First Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 1, ECF No. 26.) According to Plaintiff, he authored or jointly authored all or substantially all of Prince's songs, including songs on Prince's popular Purple Rain, Around the World in Day, Sign O' The Times, and Emancipation albums. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 13, 65.) Plaintiff alleges that he initially gave Prince a license to his works “for three (3) years beginning in the year 1982” in exchange for one million dollars at a later date. (Id. ¶ 33.) He then extended that license for nine years in exchange for one billion dollars payable in 1994. (Id.) In 1995, Plaintiff claims that he extended the license for the remainder of Prince's life, receiving one dollar as consideration for the extension from Prince's lawyer Jerry Edelstein. (Id.) The license terminated upon Prince's death on April 21, 2016. (Id.) This license prohibited “anyone other than Prince from usage” of Plaintiff's songs. (Id. ¶ 76.)

         On April 4, 2014, Prince transferred the publishing rights to all or substantially all of his songs (965 songs) to NPG Publishing, of which he was the member-manager. (Id., Ex. I.) This transfer of rights was recorded with the United States Copyright Office on February 4, 2016. (Id.) Since NPG Publishing took “possession” of the songs, Defendants have allegedly exploited Plaintiff's songs by copying them, distributing them, and selling them “to consumers around the world” without Plaintiff's permission. (Id. ¶ 61.)

         Over the past twenty-three years, Plaintiff has filed a number of actions seeking to recover the billion dollars he is allegedly owed under the licensing agreement. Plaintiff filed the first such action in California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles on September 23, 1994, against Warner Brothers Records and Prince. (Tavernier Decl., Ex. G, ECF No. 30-2.)[1] He alleged two causes of action in the complaint: (1) fraudulent transfer, and (2) conspiracy. (Id. ¶¶ 1-16.) The complaint was largely nonsensical, referring to Plaintiff as the Messiah, discussing the twenty-eight signers of the Declaration of Independence, and mentioning an “educational system” known as “The Game.” (See e.g., id. at 266, 268-269.) On February 6, 1995, the court dismissed Warner Brothers Records after its successful demurrer and Plaintiff's subsequent failure to amend the complaint. (Id., Ex. I.) The case could not proceed against Prince because he had not been properly served. (See id., Ex. H at 275.)

         On March 24, 1995, Plaintiff filed a nearly identical action against Prince in California Superior Court for the County of San Bernardino. (See id., Exs. K, L.) However, Plaintiff again failed to properly serve Prince. (Id., Ex. K.) Accordingly, the case was dismissed without prejudice on November 29, 1995. (Id.)

         On April 26, 2016, Plaintiff filed a petition in Carver County District Court (a Minnesota state court) against Prince's estate asserting ownership of “all” of Prince's songs and seeking the one billion dollars owed under the licensing agreement.[2] (Id., Ex. A at 7, 12.) Shortly thereafter, The Bremer Trust[3] filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's petition. (Tavernier Decl., Ex. 16, ECF No. 39-2.) The Carver County court found that Plaintiff “failed to establish that he ever had a [licensing agreement] with [Prince].” (Tavernier Decl., Ex. D at 251, ECF No. 30-2.) Specifically, the court found that there were no allegations to corroborate the existence of such a licensing agreement or to suggest that there had been adequate consideration for the agreement. (Id.) Plaintiff subsequently appealed the court's decision. (Order, ECF No. 35). On April 19, 2017, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the Carver County court's decision finding that Plaintiff failed to “sufficiently allege an implied-in-fact contract claim.” (Id.)

         Around the same time, on January 19, 2017, Plaintiff attempted to revive the long dormant 1994 Superior Court proceeding against Prince by substituting in The Bremer Trust. (Tavernier Decl., Ex. H at 275, ECF No. 30-2.) However, the court granted The Bremer Trust's motion to dismiss for failure to prosecute, finding that Plaintiff had not timely served Prince with the complaint. (Id. at 275-276.) A February 7, 2017 order dismissed the action in its entirety. (Id.) Plaintiff subsequently appealed that order. (See Vexatious Lit. Mot. at 13 n.3, ECF No. 39-1.)

         Plaintiff filed this action on February 24, 2017. (ECF No. 1.) On April 5, 2017, Plaintiff filed a first amended complaint alleging: (1) copyright infringement; (2) breach of contract; and (3) intentional interference with contractual relations. (FAC ¶¶ 64-87.) On April 19, 2017, Defendants filed the pending motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 30.) On April 27, 2017, Defendants filed the pending motion to deem Plaintiff a vexatious litigant. (ECF No. 39.) Both motions are now fully briefed and ready for decision. (ECF Nos. 36, 42, 44, 45.)[4]


         A court may dismiss a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for lack of a cognizable legal theory or insufficient facts pleaded to support an otherwise cognizable legal theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1988). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint need only satisfy the minimal notice pleading requirements of Rule 8(a)(2)-a short and plain statement of the claim. Porter v. Jones, 319 F.3d 483, 494 (9th Cir. 2003). The factual “allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). That is, the complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The determination of whether a complaint satisfies the plausibility standard is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. A court is generally limited to the pleadings and must construe all “factual allegations set forth in the complaint . . . as true and . . . in the light most favorable” to the plaintiff. Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). But a court need not blindly accept conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of fact, and unreasonable inferences. Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001).

         Generally, a court should freely give leave to amend a complaint that has been dismissed, even if not requested by the party. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a); Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1130 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). However, a court may deny leave to amend when it “determines that the allegation of other facts consistent with the challenged pleading could not possibly cure the deficiency.” Schreiber Distrib. Co. v. Serv-Well Furniture Co., 806 F.2d 1393, 1401 (9th Cir. 1986).


         A. Motion to Dismiss

         1. Copyright Infringement

         “A plaintiff may not bring an action for infringement unless he . . . has . . . registered the [relevant] work with the U.S. Copyright Office.” Jim Marshall Photography, LLC v. John Varvatos of Cal., No. C-11-06702 DMR, 2013 WL 3339048, at *5 (N.D. Cal. June 28, 2013) (citing 17 U.S.C. § 411(a)) (emphasis added); see also Exist, Inc. v. Shoreline Wear, Inc., No. LACV1408358JAKRZX, 2015 WL 12781409, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 17, 2015) (citing Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Muchnick, 559 U.S. 154, 158 (2010)). In other words, registration is a “precondition to suit” for copyright infringement. Epikhin v. Game Insight N. Am., 145 F.Supp.3d 896, 902 (N.D. Cal. 2015) (citing Reed Elsevier, 559 U.S. at 166).

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff has not established registration of the relevant works. (Mot. 13-14, ECF No. 30-1.) In an attempt to establish the requisite registration, Plaintiff has attached several documents from the United States Copyright Office to his complaint. One of these documents is a registration for “Rameses XII; Merc [S]upertext; a handy manual for the serious student of spirituality” by Rameses America Mercury. (FAC, Ex. K.) However, this registration does not reference any of the works at issue in this action. See Kema, Inc. v. Koperwhats, No. C09-1587MMC, 2010 WL 726640, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 1, 2010) (registration must pertain to the work(s) in question).

         The other Copyright Office documents Plaintiff has attached to the complaint relate to the February 4, 2016 recordation of an April 4, 2014 transfer of rights for the relevant works from Prince to NPG Publishing. (See FAC, Exs. H, I.) Plaintiff alleges that this recordation somehow caused all 965 of the transferred works to become “part of [the] Merc Supertext” referenced in the previous paragraph. (Id. ¶¶ 32, 60.) However, this notion is entirely unsupported by the documents themselves. The recordation documents make no reference to Plaintiff, Plaintiff's alias, or the Merc Supertext. (Id., Ex. H at 62, Ex. I at 65-67.) Likewise, the “Exclusive ...

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