District court dismisses copyright infringement claim against creators of Fox’s television show “Empire,” finding no substantial similarity between Fox’s show about struggle for control of music company and plaintiff’s autobiographical story about his exploits as a drug lord and prostitution ring leader.
In a dispute involving the popular Fox television show “Empire,” Ron Newt, a self-described “gangsta pimp” and drug lord who briefly managed his children’s careers in the music industry, sued Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.; the show’s creators, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong; its star, Terrence Howard; and its writer, Malcolm Spellman. Newt asserted claims of copyright infringement and breach of implied-in-fact contract, arguing that “Empire” infringed the copyrights in his true-to-life book, screenplay and DVD, each titled “Bigger Than Big.” After reviewing the works and finding no substantial similarity, the district court granted Fox’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss. It also dismissed Newt’s state-law contract claim, without prejudice, to refiling in state court.
To establish copyright infringement, Newt was required to show: (1) his ownership of the copyrights in the “Bigger Than Big” works; (2) that Fox and the individual defendants had access to his works; and (3) that there was “substantial similarity” between his works and “Empire.” Fox did not contest Newt’s ownership of “Bigger Than Big” or that it had access to that work, given Newt’s allegation that he met with Howard in 2010 to discuss a potential project based on his life story. Fox’s and individual defendants’ motions focused on whether substantial similarity existed between the works.
Newt’s works involve the story of his life as a pimp and drug lord, including his various imprisonments. Newt later managed his preteen and teenaged sons in a singing and dancing group called the Newtrons, at one point obtaining a record deal for the group and befriending the Jackson family. The climax of the story occurs when Newt’s oldest son is killed during a gang initiation robbery. The district court found that Newt’s works focus primarily on the violence, sex, drugs and crime surrounding Newt’s life — a life he eventually gives up to manage the Newtrons.
“Empire,” on the other hand, focuses on the power struggle among members of the Lyon family, led by patriarch Lucious Lyon, a famous rapper and music mogul who used music to escape the streets and a life of poverty. Although “Empire” contains brief flashbacks to Lucious’ troubled past, the district court concluded that the plot focuses more on the conflict within the Lyon family — including Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie, and their three successful adult sons — over control of his music empire.
Following an in-depth analysis of the plot, themes, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, characters and sequence of events of the works at issue, the district court identified significant differences between the works. It also found that many of the elements alleged by Newt to have been copied in “Empire” were generic and non-protectable scenes-a-faire, such as the theme of a bad person turning his life around, the setting of a story in an urban nightclub, and members of the music industry wearing hats and jewelry. Furthermore, the district court found that the mood of Newt’s works is dark, violent and sexually graphic, while the mood of “Empire” is less explicit and contains upbeat scenes.
Newt argued that the court was required to apply the inverse-ratio rule, which sets a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity when there is a high degree of access. But the district court decided that Newt would be able to demonstrate substantial similarity even under that relaxed view. The district court concluded that the works are not substantially similar, and dismissed Newt’s copyright infringement claim. The court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Newt’s state-law claim for breach of an implied-in-fact contract, noting that the similarity analysis under that claim differs from the analysis under copyright infringement, and dismissed Newt’s state-law claim, without prejudice, to refiling in state court.