Philly man says 'Empire' producer stole his idea, files Supreme Court petition

Flashpoint
December 13, 2018 - 4:00 am

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A Philadelphia man who claims producer-writer Lee Daniels stole his idea for the hit Fox show "Empire" has refused to give up. This week, he filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I will teach my children, you don't give up on a fight if you're right," said Clayton Prince Tanksley.

Tanksley is an actor, writer and producer, known for his work on "The Cosby Show" as Denise's boyfriend and as Seaweed in the film adaptation of "Hairspray." But in 2005, he produced and copyrighted four episodes of a show he called "CREAM," about Philadelphia-based hip-hop mogul Wiston St. James

According to his federal lawsuit, he pitched the show to Lee Daniels in 2008 at a Philadelphia Film Office Pitch Philly event. There, he said he spoke with Daniels one-on-one and gave him a DVD and script, as well as answered numerous questions.

"He picked my brain about every detail, every story line," said Tanksley, and even "the disease I thought the lead should have, everything."

In 2015, Tanksley said he was shocked to see "Empire" on FOX. The hit TV series tells the story of hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyons and his battle over the legacy of Empire Entertainment.

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Tanksley has since filed a federal lawsuit alleging copyright infringement, citing multiple similarities between "CREAM" and "Empire."

The district court dismissed the claims, noting that there were not substantially similar such that a jury would find in the plaintiff's favor. Tanksley appealed to the Third Circuit, which agreed with the lower court ruling.

"Clayton's rights were clearly violated here in terms of a jury trial," said Mary Elizabeth Bogan, his attorney. She filed the petition for a writ of cert to the US Supreme Court. She believes the courts overstepped legal precedent by failing to allow Tanksley the opportunity to do depositions, collect evidence, present expert witness testimony or allow a jury to watch the two copyrighted works to determine whether there is infringement.

"This is an important decision for anyone who’s creative," said Bogan, noting the wide implications the Third Circuit ruling could have if the court fails to intervene.

Daniel's lawyer, Richard Stone of Jenner Block, declined to comment. The Philadelphia Film Office also declined to comment.

Taskley said for him, it's a matter of principle, and he has no plans to give up.