'Empire' Beats "Gangsta Pimp's" $10M Copyright Suit

Terrence Howard Lee Daniels Getty H 2016
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Empire didn't copy self-described "gangsta pimp" Ron Newt's life story Bigger Than Big, according to a California federal judge.

Newt sued Lee Daniels, Terrence Howard and 20th Century Fox for $1 billion in April 2015, claiming they stole his story years after he spent three hours telling it to Howard. Shortly thereafter, he hired attorney Charles Coate and filed an amended complaint, dialing back his damages to $10 million. Fox fired back in October saying Empire is akin to a modern-day King Lear and not based on Newt's "crudely written, violent, regretful" work.

U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall dismissed the suit on Wednesday, finding there is no substantial similarity with respect to plot and the theme of "a bad person turning his life around" is unprotectable.

To prevail, Newt would have had to prove he owned a valid copyright to Bigger Than Big, that the defendants had access to it and that Empire is substantially similar to it. Fox doesn't contest that Newt owns the book, screenplay and DVD of Bigger Than Big, or that defendants had access to it, so Marshall only considered the issue of substantial similarity.

"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 works and Empire are not substantially similar as to plot," writes Marshall.

In Marshall's opinion, two-thirds of Newt's documentary centers on his work as a pimp in San Francisco, while the remaining third focuses on his sons' group the Newtrons, and his book and screenplay primarily focus on "the violence, sex, drugs and crime" surrounding Newt's life as a drug lord. Meanwhile, Marshall found Empire focuses on "the power struggle amongst the Lyons — an African American family in the music business."

Further, Marshall found the common plot elements of "pursuing dreams of music careers" and "[t]he concept of a bad person spending time in prison" are unprotectable and there is "virtually no overlap in dialogue."

Other things Marshall finds unprotectable: the fact that the sons in the works wear sunglasses and gold chains, similarity in age between the male leads, that some of the sons sing.

"Plaintiff has demonstrated, at most, random similarities between the works which does not constitute substantial similarity," Marshall writes. 

"If access is conceded and a number of similarities are recognized we would not refer to those as random," says Coate, adding that he and his client are disappointed with the decision, but they have not yet decided if they'll pursue an appeal.

Marshall also dismissed Newt's breach of implied-in-fact contract claim without prejudice. As it is a state law claim, if Newt takes another shot at that complaint it would be in L.A. County Superior Court. 

Marshall's full opinion is below.

July 29, 4:55 p.m. Updated with a comment from Coate.