If you’re a part of a hugely popular piece of entertainment, there’s a good chance someone out there is looking to find a way to make their own money off of it. (Just ask James Cameron.) Director Lee Daniels dealt with an oddball lawsuit over the title of his 2013 film Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and something similar is happening with his hit TV series Empire, as Fox is preemptively suing a company demanding action over the “Empire” name. I think we all know how Lucious Lyon would handle this.
According to THR, the California-based record label and distribution company Empire Distribution, Inc. came at Fox with a demand letter that claims their name is being run through the mud by the series, which centers on “a label run by a homophobic drug dealer prone to murdering his friends.” The company is trying to say that they have the rights to “Empire,” “Empire Distribution” and “Empire Recordings.” (I guess that means no Empire Records sequels.)
Empire Distribution first sent out a letter in February, demanding $8 million for all damages and infringement claims. They followed that up with another claim earlier this month that gave Fox the options to either pay the $8 million, stop using the name “Empire,” or to pay $5 million and include Empire Distribution artists in future episodes. Not a sketchy proposition in the least, right? But with roster artists past and present like Kendrick Lamar, Freddie Gibbs and Busta Rhymes, it wouldn’t be the dumbest idea in the world for Empire to use some of them. But I doubt that’ll happen now that bad blood is flowing.
Fox’s lawsuit claims that Empire Distribution never received a federal trademark on the name Empire, and that the company was denied the right to use “Empire Distribution” for non-electronic music recordings. (Their registration for the name, which includes electronic music recordings, is still pending.) Fox also claims that confusion between the companies is unlikely, since Empire Distribution is nowhere near as well-known at this point, with a Google search of “empire record label” apparently not showing their website until users have looked through seven pages of results that are full of Empire links.
It’s unclear at this point what side of things a court will land on, considering Empire has already produced a Billboard-topping soundtrack album. That point would seem to further complicate matters for those who can’t read “from Season 1 of Empire,” thus easily understanding that this is from a TV show.
Since premiering in January, Empire’s ratings defied the odds and only got bigger from episode to episode, with well over 16 million people tuning into last week’s finale. Its success also drew some ire from NBA player Iman Shumpert, who initially said some of the characters were ripping off him and his model/musician girlfriend, but he later eased up on his complaints. Will Empire have more potential legal troubles in the future?