It’s not every day that an individual goes toe-to-toe with a major Hollywood studio and lives to tell a tale of victory. That Sophia Eggleton, who once went to prison for manslaughter and returned there after violating probation when police found a large quantity of marijuana in her possession, has managed to fend off Fox’s motion to dismiss her copyright lawsuit over the hit drama Empire, is remarkable. That she originally filed this case pro se (without a lawyer) makes her advancement even more extraordinary.
Eggleton hasn’t fully prevailed in a lawsuit alleging that the character of “Cookie” Lyon on the hit drama Empire is copied from her 2009 memoir The Hidden Hand, but she’s at least still in the game thanks to a ruling on Tuesday by Michigan federal judge Terrence Berg.
The plaintiff pointed in her complaint to “striking and shocking similarities” between the way she depicted herself in The Hidden Hand and Empire’s matriarch character. Among them: Both are light-skinned African-American women who wear expensive clothing, lead gangs, have placed hits on men, have gay family members, have served prison sentences, are known for “vicious insults,” and have a propensity to slap people.
Fox and co-defendants including co-creator Lee Daniels argued that these elements were insufficient to establish substantial similarity. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a judge in Berg who has a pretty low bar at the pleading stage. It doesn’t hurt that this case is being fought in Michigan. Some circuits around the nation have allowed judges to go beyond the contours of a complaint and incorporate evidence to address the plausibility of a claim, but the 6th Circuit (which covers Michigan) has proven friendly for copyright plaintiffs in more ways than one. Berg makes clear in his opinion that he adheres to 6th Circuit standards that disfavor dismissals on factual questions of substantial similarity.
As such, Berg sees enough to move Eggleton’s copyright claim forward.
“At first glance, many of the elements Plaintiff alleges were copied by Defendants seem like elements typical to stories about those involved in drugs and violence,” he writes. “It would not be atypical, for example, for the boss-type character of such a story to have sold drugs, to be a gang leader, to own firearms, to wear expensive clothing, to have an assertive or abrasive personality, to have been incarcerated, to have ordered a hit on someone else, or to have experienced the murder of a friend or family member. In this case, however, Plaintiff’s memoir features a woman in the dominant role as drug dealer, gang leader, and perpetrator of violence. This is not the stock and trade of the average drug gangster potboiler.”
The judge adds that other elements like gay family members, murdered family members, and coming between a close one and a loaded gun also aren’t of the “stock-standard variety.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Eggleton, who retained a lawyer after originally filing the complaint herself, pleads a plausible case of access. She says she was introduced to screenwriter Rita Grant Miller through a mutual acquaintance, that they discussed adapting The Hidden Hand and that Miller told her that Lee Daniels would be pitched. The judge says that Eggleton presents a “strong and, for purposes of this motion, unchallenged” allegation regarding access.
Eggleton isn’t entirely successful in Round 1.
She loses her publicity rights claim because the judge writes Eggleton “has not alleged any facts in the second version of her complaint establishing that she has a pecuniary interest or any commercial value in her identity.”
And there are looming challenges ahead — the first of which will be to convince the judge why Daniels and Empire writers Danny Strong and Malcolm Spellman are subject to the court’s jurisdiction. But even there, Berg is open-minded, giving the parties the next month to conduct discovery on the issue. Here’s the judge’s ruling.
Unless settled, the case appears headed to much more discovery, not just on Daniels’ contact with the state of Michigan, but also to the development of Empire. Eggleton will have another story to tell.