Over a year after Fox, Empire co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, series star Terrence Howard, writer Malcolm Spellman and media mogul Rupert Murdoch were sued in a $10 million copyright infringement suit by “self-described ‘gangsta pimp’” Ron Newt, a federal judge has tossed the case out.
“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,” wrote District Judge Consuelo Marshall on Wednesday (read it here). “Plaintiff has demonstrated, at most, random similarities between the works which does not constitute substantial similarity,” Judge Marshall added in the 26-page order granting the defendants’ motions to have the matter dismissed.
Claiming that he gave Howard a copy of his memoir Bigger Than Big, a DVD of a documentary about him and a registered screenplay called All That Glitters in 2010, Newt said in the initial April 2015 complaint that the Fox blockbuster series was ripped-off his life and work – and he wanted to get paid.
After Newt filed an amended complaint last August that dropped the media mogul from the matter and lowered the cash he was seeking, Fox and the other remaining defendants hit back in mid-October with a motion to dismiss the case. Calling Newt a “San Francisco-area pimp and drug dealer,” their filing said that the 2015 debuting Empire is a “a modern take on Shakespeare’s King Lear.”
With the music biz playing a small part of Newt’s work and a big part of the hip hop drama, that take was almost nothing like his material that “include detailed descriptions of cold-blooded killings, dismemberments, and crude descriptions of Plaintiff’s sexual escapades in graphic detail that would never be shown on network television.” The response also noted that Howard had nothing to do with the creation of the series and was cast after the pilot was already written – nor that the others ever saw the work in such a way that constituted an agreement.
The judge pushed back against the motion earlier this year and allowed Newt to get his screenplay in the docket. This week that pushback ended with the results of Fox, Daniels, Strong and the rest can now do an Imperial happy dance – at least for now. Additionally, citing jurisdictional circumstance, Judge Marshall made a point of asserting that Newt could refile his now dismissed breach of implied contract claim in state court to pursue if that Daniels, Strong or Spellman ever saw his work in a way that implied an agreement of any sort.
Also, having been the target of a number of such suits since its debut, Empire is the subject of yet another case filed this spring where author Timothy J. Levi is claiming that the series is based on his Unity Incorporated: The Mastermind. Making Newt looking like small change, Levi wants $1.5 billion for the alleged lifting.
As that case continues, Empire returns for a third season later this year.
Linda Burrow and Kelly Perigoe of LA’s Caldwell Leslie & Proctor represent the defendants. Charles M. Coate of Abrams Coate LLP represents Newt.