Copyright claims brought by Clayton Tanksley against writer-director Lee Daniels were dismissed after the court found no substantial similarities between Daniels’ hit show, Empire, and the struggling actor’s screenplay, Cream. Though both shows are centered around an African-American music label executive that has been diagnosed with a life-long disease, the random similarities end there. These characters, the court found, are both generic “prototypes” and do not earn copyright protection.
ALS and Herpes, Lifelong Diseases of a Different Sort
For those not familiar with the hit series, Empire is based on Lucious Lyon, the African-American CEO of Empire Entertainment, trying to find a successor to his business after he is diagnosed with ALS, a fatal disease. The antagonist in Cream, also an African-American record executive, is diagnosed with Herpes, rarely fatal in modern times. Yes, both are lifelong diseases, but that’s about the end of the similarities. Tanksley had to prove the characters were substantially similar, not just randomly similar. And as the judge in the case so eloquently put it, “After all, both Mozart and Metallica composed in E minor.”
Other Empire Copyright Suits
This isn’t the first copyright lawsuit that Daniels has faced over Empire. In 2016, he and his colleagues were sued by Ron Newt for $10 million, a self-described “gangsta pimp.” The judge dismissed that case too, stating “although the parties’ works each follow an African American man who was involved in drug dealing and has sons pursuing a music career, Plaintiff’s work and Empire are not substantially similar as to plot.” As one of the defendant’s described the differences, Newt’s film was about a “San Francisco-area pimp and drug dealer” and Empire is a “modern take on Shakespeare’s King Lear.” Ouch! There have been other copyright lawsuits against Empire in a similar vein, including a $1.5 billion one by Timothy Levi. Surely, Tanksley’s won’t be the last.
If you’ve written a screenplay and, after pitching it to others, feel like your ideas were lifted by another writer, contact a local copyright attorney to have your case evaluated. You may be able to prove substantial similarities, and recover damages.