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Johnson v. UMG Recordings, Inc.

United States District Court, C.D. California

October 23, 2019

SYL JOHNSON, Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff Syl Johnson (“Johnson”) brings several claims against Defendant UMG Recordings, Inc. (“UMG”) involving copyright infringement. Plaintiff claims Defendant UMG reproduced, distributed, and licensed a sampled portion of Plaintiff's music. (See Compl. ¶¶1, ECF No. 1.)

         Defendant moves to dismiss on the following grounds: (1) Plaintiff's claims are barred by the statute of limitations; and (2) Defendant's alleged copying is not actionable. (See generally Mot. to Dismiss Compl. (“Mot.”), ECF No. 14.)[1]

         For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS, IN PART and DENIES, IN PA RT, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss.


         Syl Johnson, doing business as Twinight Records, Inc., produces, manufactures, distributes, and sells sound recordings. (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 8.) In 1968, Plaintiff recorded vocals of himself in a track titled “I Feel An Urge” (the “Recording”). (Compl. ¶¶ 1.) In the Recording, a segment contains Plaintiff's distinctive vocal “Ohh” followed by a fast-paced drum roll, instrumental guitar, high note on a saxophone, and Plaintiff singing “Yeah.”[2] (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 15.) In 1991, Defendant UMG reproduced, distributed, and licensed a portion of the Recording on various tracks titled “Know the Ledge, ” “Juice, ” and “Juice (Know the Ledge).” (Compl. ¶¶ 1, 16.) Plaintiff alleges that the Recording “comprises twenty-five percent of these tracks.” (Compl. ¶ 16.) Defendant allegedly used the tracks in theatrical and television movies, greatest hits compilations, music videos, video games, commercials, and third-party licenses all over the world. (Compl. ¶ 1.) Plaintiff discovered that the Recording was sampled when Matthew Clifford, a former disc jockey, informed him that he “recognized Plaintiff's voice” on Defendant's recordings. (Compl. ¶ 17.) Plaintiff had not authorized Defendant to reproduce, manufacture, distribute, or license a sample portion of the Recording. (Compl. ¶ 2.)

         Plaintiff has filed several actions based on these facts in several venues. For instance, he filed an action on May 4, 2015 in the Northern District of Illinois and another one on December 12, 2017 in the Middle District of Tennessee.[3] (Compl. ¶ 18.) On March 28, 2019, Plaintiff filed the operative Complaint in the Central District of California alleging three claims for relief under: (1) Cal. Civ. Code § 980 et seq.; (2) Cal. Bus. & Prof Code § 17200 et seq.; and (3) Cal. Civ. Code § 3344. (See generally Compl.) On June 3, 2019, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss (“Motion”). (See Mot.)


         A court may dismiss a complaint under Rule 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 dismissal motion, 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, 679 (9th Cir. 2001). 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).


         A. Statute of Limitations

         Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiff's claims alleging that they are barred by the statute of limitations. Misappropriation claims under Cal. Civ. Code. § 3344 are subject to a two-year limitation. Yeager v. Bowlin, 693 F.3d 1076, 1081 (9th Cir. 2012) (stating that claims under Cal. Civ.Code § 3344 are subject to a two-year statute of limitations). Claims under UCL are subject to a four-year limitation. Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17208 (“[a]ny action to enforce [the UCL] shall be commenced within four years after the cause of action accrued.”) Claims under Cal. Civ. Code § 980(a)(2) are subject to a three-year limitations periods. UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Glob. Eagle Entm't, Inc., No. CV 14-3466-GW(JPRX), 2016 WL 3457179, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 20, 2016) (citing 17 U.S.C. § 507(b); Cal. Civ. Code § 338(a); Bridge Publications, Inc. v. Vien, 827 F.Supp. 629, 634 (S.D. Cal. 1993) (applying three-year statute per § 338(a) to “copyright claims based on Cal. Civ. Code § 980(a)(2)”)).

         Plaintiff asserts that the first instance of infringement occurred in 1991, yet he is entitled to relief for every infringing act since then because Defendant continues to sell recordings with Plaintiff's unlicensed Recording and each sale constitutes a new instance of infringement. (Opp'n to Mot (“Opp'n”) 13, ECF No. 16.) However, an individual cannot bring copyright claims beyond the statute of limitations simply because instances of copyright infringement continue to occur within the statutory period. Roley v. New World Pictures, Ltd., 19 F.3d 479, 481 (9th Cir. 1994). Acts that accrued within the three years preceding the filing of suit may be brought. Id. (holding that “in a case of continuing copyright infringements, an action may be brought for all acts that accrued within the three years preceding the filing of suit.”) Furthermore, under California law, the continuing violation doctrine does not apply to toll the statute of limitations periods for claims of misappropriation, and violation of the UCL unless necessary for series of harms to ...

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