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Television Producer Lee Daniels Wins Copyright Case Over 'Empire'

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Clayton Prince Tanksley, a struggling actor and producer, thought he had hit.

He pitched a story idea in a contest, and then saw a similar show make it to the screen. "Empire," a Fox Television production, was a hit.

Unfortunately for the aspiring producer in Tanksley v. Daniels, it was not based on his idea. Not even close, said the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Not Substantially Similar"

Tanksley sued in 2016, claiming producer and director Lee Daniels stole his story for "Empire." A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, and Tanksley appealed.

At oral arguments, his attorney tried to point out similarities in the plots. It didn't go well, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

"As a preliminary matter, we note that the shared premise of the shows -- an African-American, male record executive -- is unprotectable," Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in a unanimous decision. "These characters fit squarely within the class of 'prototypes' to which copyright protection has never extended."

The appeals court said the shows' "characters, settings and storylines" were "not substantially similar."

"Random Similarities"

The plots in "Empire" and "Cream" were based on black record executives with diseases, but little more.

In "Empire," the protagonist has ALS. In "Cream," the main character has herpes. Not the same, the appeals panel said.

"'Random similarities' are insufficient to establish substantial similarity," Fisher wrote. "After all, both Mozart and Metallica composed in E minor."

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