Critics and audiences can form their own opinions about what a TV show is about, but lawsuits alleging idea theft can serve as vehicles for the TV network and creators to explain themselves.
According to a court filing on Thursday from 20th Century Fox, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels and others involved in the show, the hit drama is a “modern take on Shakespeare’s King Lear” or a “contemporary take on Dynasty, a 1980s primetime soap opera that focused on the family drama around a succession plan for a patriarch running an oil empire.”
One thing that Empire is not based on, writes an attorney for Fox, is the “crudely written, violent, regretful autobiographical works” of Ron Newt, self-described “gangsta pimp.”
Newt filed his $1 billion lawsuit in April, and at the time, it wasn’t much to be taken seriously despite three exclamation points in a headline about the suit from TMZ. For one thing, Newt listed “Rupert Murdock” — misspelling the last name of the then-21st Century Fox CEO — as the lead defendant. For another, just look at the actual complaint.
But in August, Newt found real legal representation and filed an amended $10 million complaint that has a much greater air of legitimacy (read here). The plaintiff alleges being the author of a book, Bigger than Big, as well as a screenplay and DVD documentary based on the book. He alleges that in 2010, while in Los Angeles promoting his works, he met with Empire actor Terrence Howard for more than three hours and relayed his life story. Howard allegedly kept copies of Newt’s works, which are claimed to be substantially similar to the program that Howard would later star in.
Newt describes both works as “centering around an African American man with a history of violence raising himself and his three sons from the ghetto and a life of crime into the world of the music industry.”
The Empire defendants say that’s not what their show is about at all.
“Empire is not about the characters’ history of violence and crime or Lucious‘ struggle to achieve legitimacy and success in the music industry,” states a motion to dismiss. “When they are introduced in the pilot, Lucious and Cookie have long ago left the drug trade, and Lucious is already at the top of the industry. Instead, Empire is about a drug dealer-turned-rapper-turned-music mogul who, believing he has a terminal illness, seeks a successor from among his three sons, while battling with the women in his life.”
The amended complaint might have been enough of an improvement that Fox hired its own strong attorney, Linda Burrow at Caldwell Leslie, to submit a 34-page memorandum (read in full here) shooting down the lawsuit, but the defendants still identify some legacy inadequacies on Newt’s part. These include a copyright application deemed “defective” because it “purports to register multiple works with different publication dates in a single application.”
There’s also an attack on the the potential shortcomings of Newt’s new lawyer, Charles Coate. Take Newt’s alleged meeting with Howard. Besides copyright infringement, the plaintiff is claiming a breach of an implied contract based upon a failure to satisfy an understanding that if Newt’s works were used, he would be paid appropriately. But the defendants say that there’s no claim that anybody else was at the meeting, that Howard had the authority to bind anyone else or that Newt’s works were disclosed to anyone else. “Nor does Plaintiff allege that Howard had any role in creating Empire,” they add.