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Eggleston v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Finding plaintiff’s historical recitation of individual facts is not entitled to copyright protection, district court grants defendants’ motion to dismiss copyright infringement claim, where plaintiff alleged that fictional character Cookie Lyon in defendants’ television series Empire was based on plaintiff’s portrayal of herself in her memoir.

In a case arising out of the FOX television series Empire, the district court dismissed plaintiff Sophia Eggleston’s claim that the portrayal of the character Cookie Lyon in the series is based on Eggleston’s portrayal of herself in her memoir The Hidden Hand.

Eggleston wrote the memoir while she was in prison in the mid-2000s, detailing “her life of crime, imprisonment, and her attempt at redemption.” Eggleston alleged that, sometime in 2011, she met with defendant Rita Grant Miller, who discussed turning the memoir into a movie. Eggleston allegedly gave a copy of the memoir to Miller, who reported to Eggleston that she gave it to defendant and director Lee Daniels during a meeting to pitch the concept. Defendants subsequently created the hit television series Empire, featuring the central character Cookie Lyon. Eggleston alleged that Cookie Lyon is based on Eggleston’s depiction of herself and that defendants took material from the memoir in violation of Eggleston’s copyright. In particular, Eggleston listed 23 alleged similarities between herself and the Cookie Lyon character. 

The central issues raised by defendants’ motion to dismiss were whether defendants copied original elements of Eggleston’s work and whether copyright protection for characters is limited to fictional characters whose depictions are entirely based on creative expression. The parties did not dispute either Eggleston’s ownership of a valid copyright in the memoir or defendants’ access to it. 

Courts have long recognized a “fact/expression” dichotomy in copyright law. Although copyright law does not protect bare facts, copyright protection can extend to the manner in which those facts are expressed—such as their selection, arrangement and portrayal. The court noted that the Sixth Circuit has not yet addressed the question of whether a real-life person (as opposed to a fictional character) can be copyrighted. The court relied on a recent case in the Eleventh Circuit, Vallejo v. Narcos Prods. LLC, in which the plaintiff had written a memoir about herself and claimed that certain scenes from the television show Narcos depicted a fictional character based on her. The district court found it significant that the Eleventh Circuit in Vallejo was not troubled that the fictional character in Narcos was clearly based directly on the life of the real Vallejo as described in her memoir; rather, the Eleventh Circuit focused its decision on the fact that the Narcos scenes at issue were not substantially similar to the scenes in the plaintiff’s memoir. (Read our summary of the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Vallejo here.)

The district court held that the “historical recitation of individual facts” that Eggleston presents in her memoir falls on the “fact” side of the fact/expression dichotomy and therefore is not entitled to copyright protection. The court noted that while certain aspects of the expression of her life story are protected, such as the arrangement and selection of the facts, and her reflection and inner monologue, Eggleston did not identify any scene, dialogue or portrayal in Empire that copied her copyrighted expression. Defendants’ use of some of the facts of Eggleston’s life—even if incorporated into a new, fictional character—did not violate copyright law without a further showing by plaintiff that particular creative expressions of her depiction of herself were unique to the memoir.

Summary prepared by Melanie Howard and Brandon Zamudio