The dismissal of a Philadelphia actor's copyright infringement lawsuit against writer-director Lee Daniels was upheld this week after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found only a shared premise between Daniels' hit show Empire and an earlier pilot by the actor.
Clayton Prince Tanksley, a Philadelphia native and actor, filed the suit against fellow Philly native Daniels in 2016, alleging that the writer-director stole an idea that Tanksley had pitched him at a Greater Philadelphia Film Office event in 2008. Titled Cream, Tanksley's 2005 show revolved around an African-American record executive, much like Empire, which premiered in 2015 and focuses on record industry mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).
US District Judge Joel Slomsky dismissed Tanksley's suit in April last year, ruling that the the plot lines of the two shows were too general to constitute copyright infringement. The Third Circuit this week upheld that ruling, indicating that the shows are "not substantially similar as a matter of law."
"As a preliminary matter, we note that the shared premise of the shows — an African-American male record executive — is unprotectable," U.S. Circuit Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote of the case. "These characters fit squarely within the class of 'prototypes' to which copyright protection has never extended."
Characters who have earned copyright protection, Fisher continued, are those with "consistent, widely identifiable traits," such as "Godzilla, James Bond, and Rocky Balboa."
"We are pleased with the Third Circuit's thorough order affirming the district court's dismissal of these claims, and with the Third Circuit's decision to join other circuits in approving the dismissal of copyright infringement claims at the pleading stage where the works before the court are not substantially similar," Richard L. Stone, attorney to Daniels and Fox, said of the decision in an e-mail. An attorney for Tanksley did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In his appeal, Tanksley attempted to show other similarities between the shows, including noting that both protagonists are diagnosed with incurable diseases early in their seasons. Lyon is diagnosed with ALS in Empire, while Winston St. James, Tanksley's protagonist in Cream, is diagnosed with herpes, which, Fisher wrote, is a substantially different scenario.
"Lucious' diagnosis of ALS — which is fatal — creates the urgency to choose his successor, the focal point of the entire series," Fisher wrote. "Winston's diagnosis of herpes — which is painful — merely serves to interfere with his romantic liaisons and introduces the venereal whodunit that follows. Random similarities are insufficient to establish substantial similarity. After all, both Mozart and Metallica composed in E minor."
Earlier this summer, Daniels was reportedly hit with a $5 million lawsuit from music mogul Damon Dash, who claims the director promised to put him on a Richard Pryor biopic as producer, as well a pay him backend profits off the film, which never came together. Dash also alleged that he loaned Daniels $2 million, and never received it back. Daniels later promised to repay the money.
In 2016, actor Sean Penn dropped a $10 million defamation suit against Daniels after the director issued an apology for alluding to rumors that Penn abused singer Madonna during their marriage in the 1980s in interviews.