Novelist Trots Out `American Gangster’ to Show How `Empire’ Stole From Him



So how much does Anthony Lewis, the protagonist of Timothy Levi’s novel “Unity Incorporated: The Mastermind,” really resemble Lucious Lyon from the blockbuster TV series “Empire”?  

Well, for one thing, they resemble each other a lot more than Lewis resembles a gangster character from a film. That is the crux of Levi’s latest argument, made Monday, in his ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit against “Empire” creator Lee Daniels and others.  

In response to a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Levi filed a document detailing at least 30 character traits shared by Lewis and Lyon. What’s more—in an effort to apparently to underscore those similarities—Lyon argued that his protagonist resembles Lyon far more than it does a third “character from another film with the same general storyline” —one from the film “American Gangster.”  

“In ‘American Gangster’, played by Denzel Washington,” Levi wrote, “he depicted an African American gangster, who distributed heroin, and invested the money in to various businesses. However, the similarities in American Gangster ceased there.”  

By contrast, Levi outlined numerous plot similarities between his novel and “Empire,” both of which focus on African-American men with a history of drug dealing and murder who rise to become major players in the music industry.  

In March, Levi sued Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp, Daniels and other “Empire” creators in federal court in Virginia. He claimed he showed a copy of his novel to a lawyer who passed it onto Daniels, who later based “Empire” along similar plotlines. He’s seeking $1.5 billion in damages and representing himself in the case.  

Twentieth Century Fox, while acknowledging in legal documents that the “Empire” protagonist “rose from a life of drug dealing to ownership of a record company and that the Lyon character murdered someone with whom he had a long history,” denied that the series is “in any way substantially similar to protectable elements” of Levi’s novel.  

Twentieth Century Fox and Daniels prevailed against another copyright infringement claim in March. In that case, plaintiff Jon Astor-White claimed “Empire” infringed on a treatment he wrote titled “King Solomon.”  

As for Levi, the court will have to decide if it’s swayed by the argument that his character and Lyon are a lot more alike than his character and Washington’s.