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Williams v. Black Entertainment Television, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

February 14, 2014


Charles Williams, pro se For Plaintiff.

Danilo J. Buzzetta, Esq., John Joseph Elliott, Esq., Greenberg Traurig LLP, New York, NY, Frank E. Merideth, Jr., Esq., Greenberg Traurig LLP, Los Angeles, CA. Defendants.


JOANNA SEYBERT, District Judge.

Pro se plaintiff Charles Williams ("Plaintiff") commenced this action on March 18, 2013 against defendants Viacom, Inc. ("Viacom"); Black Entertainment Television LLC s/h/a BET Networks ("BET"); A&E Television Networks, LLC ("A&E"); Apple, Inc. s/h/a I Tunes Corporate/Apple Computer Inc. ("Apple"); Netflix, Inc. s/h/a Netflix Corporate ("Netflix"); Amazon Corporate ("Amazon"); and A. Smith & Co. Properties, Inc. s/h/a A. Smith & Co. Productions ("A. Smith" and collectively, "Defendants"). On May 3, 2013, Plaintiff filed with the Court a document he entitled "Amended Complaint, " which the Court considers a motion to amend the Complaint. Currently, the following motions are pending before the Court: (1) A. Smith, BET, and Apple's motion to dismiss the Complaint (Docket Entry 7); (2) Netflix's motion to dismiss the Complaint (Docket Entry 13); (3) A&E's motion to dismiss the Complaint (Docket Entry 25); (4) Viacom's motion to dismiss the Complaint (Docket Entry 27); (5) Plaintiff's motion to amend the Complaint (Docket Entry 23); and (6) Defendants' motion to dismiss the "Amended Complaint" (Docket Entry 31). For the following reasons, Defendants' respective motions to dismiss the original Complaint are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, Plaintiff's motion to amend the Complaint is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, and Defendants' motion to dismiss the "Amended Complaint" is DENIED as moot.


I. Original Complaint

Plaintiff alleges that he has registered copyrights with the Library of Congress, essentially copyrighting his life story, under numbers "PAu002378203" and "TXu001032384." (Compl. § III.) These works have also been registered with the Writers Guild of America East. (Compl. § III.)

On November 21, 2007, BET aired "an American Gangster story, season 2, episode 8" entitled "Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous" featuring "a bio-documentary" "detailing Plaintiff's life story." (Compl. § III.) The documentary "includes Plaintiff's life experiences as a bank robber" and was produced by defendant A. Smith. (Compl. § III.) Plaintiff's story also aired on A&E and is available on the Biography Channel website, which is controlled by A&E. (Compl. § III.) It is further available on Netflix, I Tunes, and Amazon. (Compl. § III.)

Plaintiff alleges that "[a]ll Defendants... committed... infringement with the knowledge that the program they were and are displaying and making available to the public is subject to copyright restrictions, and they are enjoying the benefits of Plaintiff's story without paying for it." (Compl. § III.)

II. Proposed Amended Complaint[1]

Plaintiff's Proposed Amended Complaint ("PAC") essentially adds to, and expounds upon, the factual allegations in the original Complaint. However, there are some distinctions that are particularly relevant.

First, Plaintiff purports to add Black Hand Entertainment as a plaintiff, "John Doe" and Best Buy as defendants, and deletes Viacom as a defendant. Second, in adding Black Hand Entertainment, Plaintiff now maintains that he and Black Hand Entertainment jointly own the copyrights at issue. Third, the PAC includes allegations that "Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous" is a "documentary" and a "story, as told by Defendants." (PAC § III, ¶ 1.) The PAC goes on to allege that "Defendants A. Smith & Co. and Black Entertainment Television copied fictional portions of Plaintiff[']s copyright material into the narrative script for the Chaz Williams Armed & Dangerous' episode of American Gangster, " including, "the order of details, fictional details, the number of bank robberies, the number and circumstances of the shoot outs, the details of the prison escape, the Canadian court and prison scene, and other details of Plaintiff's juvenile period." (PAC § III, ¶ 5.)


The Court will first address the applicable legal standards before turning to the parties' arguments specifically.

I. Legal Standards

A. Rule 12(b)(1)

"A case is properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate it." Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000). In resolving a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court may consider affidavits and other materials beyond the pleadings to resolve jurisdictional questions. See Morrison v. Nat'l Australia Bank, Ltd., 547 F.3d 167, 170 (2d Cir. 2008). The court must accept as true the factual allegations contained in the complaint, but it will not draw argumentative inferences in favor of plaintiffs because subject matter jurisdiction must be shown affirmatively. See id.; Atlanta Mut. Ins. Co. v. Balfour Maclaine Int'l Ltd., 968 F.2d 196, 198 (2d Cir. 1992); Shipping Fin. Servs. Corp. v. Drakos, 140 F.3d 129, 131 (2d Cir. 1998). "A plaintiff asserting subject matter jurisdiction has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it exists." Makarova, 201 F.3d at 113.

B. Rule 12(b)(5)

"Before a federal court may exercise personal jurisdiction over a defendant, the procedural requirement of service of summons must be satisfied.'" Dynegy Midstream Servs., L.P. v. Trammochem, 451 F.3d 89, 94 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting Omni Capital Int'l, Ltd. v. Rudolf Wolff & Co., 484 U.S. 97, 104, 108 S.Ct. 404, 98 L.Ed.2d 415 (1987)). When a defendant moves to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(5), the motion must assert more than a general statement that service was inadequate. See Herzner v. U.S. Postal Serv., No. 05-CV-2371, 2007 WL 869585, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2007). However, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing proper service. See id.

C. Rule 12(b)(6)

In deciding Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, the Court applies a "plausibility standard, " which is guided by "[t]wo working principles." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); accord Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 71-72 (2d Cir. 2009). First, although the Court must accept all allegations as true, this "tenet" is "inapplicable to legal conclusions;" thus, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; accord Harris, 572 F.3d at 72. Second, only complaints that state a "plausible claim for relief" can survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Determining whether a complaint does so is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id .; accord Harris, 572 F.3d at 72.

Because Plaintiff is litigating pro se, the Court reads his Complaint liberally, see, e.g., Mancuso v. Hynes, 379 F.App'x 60, 61 (2d Cir. 2010), and interprets his papers to "raise the strongest arguments that they suggest, '" Corcoran v. N.Y. Power Auth., 202 F.3d 530, 536 (2d Cir. 1999) (quoting McPherson v. Coombe, 174 F.3d 276, 280 (2d Cir. 1999)).

Furthermore, in deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court is confined to "the allegations contained within the four corners of [the] complaint." Pani v. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, 152 F.3d 67, 71 (2d Cir. 1998). This has been interpreted broadly to include any document attached to the Complaint, any statements or documents incorporated in the Complaint by reference, any document on which the Complaint heavily relies, and anything of which judicial notice may be taken. See Chambers v. Time Warner, Inc., 282 F.3d 147, 152-53 (2d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted); Kramer v. Time Warner Inc., 937 F.2d 767, 773 (2d Cir. 1991).

D. Rule 12(d)

Consideration of materials beyond those just enumerated requires conversion of the 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment. See Kramer, 937 F.2d at 773. In converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment, the Court must ensure that Plaintiff had "sufficient notice, " Groden v. Random House, Inc., 61 F.3d 1045, 1052 (2d Cir. 1995), and a "reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion, " FED. R. CIV. P. 12(d), before deciding the motion.

E. Rule 15

Courts should grant leave to amend "when justice so requires." FED. R. CIV. P. 15(a)(2). Leave to amend should be granted unless there is evidence of undue delay, bad faith, undue prejudice to the non-movant, or futility. See Milanese v. Rust-Oleum Corp., 244 F.3d 104, 110 (2d Cir. 2001). To determine whether an amended claim is futile, courts analyze whether the proposed pleading would withstand a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Dougherty v. Town of N. Hempstead Bd. of Zoning Appeal, 282 F.3d 83, 88 (2d Cir. 2002).

II. Plaintiff's "Amended Complaint" & Timeliness

Before the Court may address the merits of Defendants' motions, the Court must first consider which Complaint is the operative document. In their motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint, Defendants assert that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is untimely and that the Court should therefore address their motions to dismiss the original Complaint and consider Plaintiff's Amended Complaint a motion requesting ...

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