Lee Daniels Hit With ‘Empire’ Copyright Suit | Courthouse News Service
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Lee Daniels Hit With ‘Empire’ Copyright Suit

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - "Empire" creator Lee Daniels stole the idea for the hit Fox series from a pitch meeting, a Pennsylvania-based actor claims in a federal action.

Clayton Prince Tanksley, a Philadelphia man who had minor roles on "The Cosby Show" and in the "Hairspray" remake, filed suit on Friday, following up on headlines he made back in November when told Philadelphia's NBC10 that "three or four things may be considered a coincidence - not 10 things in the same one hour of program."

An award-winning series starring Terrence Howard as a music mogul suffering from ALS, "Empire" premiered its second season in September 2015. More than 17 million people watched the first-season finale of the series, which the American Film Institute ranked in its top 10 last year.

Tanksley says the show is a near carbon copy of a project called "Cream" that he registered with the U.S. Copyright Office back in 2005.

He says he shared his scripts and DVDs of 30-minute "Cream" pilots when he met Daniels through a 2008 pitch contest sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

Though Tanksley entered a different project in the contest, which Daniels was judging, Tanksley allegedly pitched the idea for "Cream" to Daniels privately.

Tanksley's complaint includes 12 side-by-side comparisons of shots from "Cream" and "Empire," with captions describing various similarities such as the physical appearances of Howard and the "Cream" actor and the characters' back stories.

A representative from Fox did not return requests for comment.

Tanksley also alleges larger thematic and stylistic similarities between the shows, including their plots.

"In both shows, the male protagonist is forced to contend with family members who are claiming entitlement and scheming to take over 50% of his record label business, and exploiting his children, in the effort," the complaint says.

Tanksley called it suspicious as well that Daniels set his series in Philadelphia, since the city "is certainly not known as a hot spot in the recording industry."

Daniels, who co-created "Empire" with Danny Strong, was born in Philadelphia.

Tanksley claims that he has been unable to market "Cream" since the debut of "Empire."

"The television series 'Empire' is so substantially similar to 'Cream,' and that various aesthetic elements, including, without limitation, the physical appearance of the characters, plots, and scenes as well as story lines, are virtually identical to those shown on the DVD of 'Cream,'" the 30-page complaint states.

Tanksley's suit additionally blames the Greater Philadelphia Film Office for not instituting "proper safeguards" against copyright theft.

Tanksley seeks damages for direct and contributory copyright infringement, intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and negligence.

He is represented by Mary Brogan.

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