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‘Black-ish’ Copying Lawsuit Appears Headed to Trial

A lawsuit claiming that “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris stole the idea for the show from a former writing partner appears headed to trial, after a judge refused to dismiss it on Thursday.

Bryan Barber contends that he and Barris had an agreement in 2006 to develop a show for VH1 about a successful black TV writer working in a largely white environment. Barber, a music video director, contends that several years later, Barris developed the idea into “Black-ish,” violating their agreement to produce the show together. Barber filed suit in 2016, seeking writing credit and compensation.

Barris’ attorneys sought to have the suit thrown out, but Judge Samantha Jessner issued a tentative ruling on Thursday denying their motion. In her ruling, Jessner noted several similarities between the scripts for the two shows. For instance, in both shows, the main character works in a media company’s “urban department,” and both shows feature jokes about grape soda.

“The court finds the similarities between the ‘Black-ish’ pilot and the ‘Untitled Original Script’ sufficient to reach a jury,” Jessner wrote.

In a hearing on the motion on Thursday, Barris’ attorney Steve Stiglitz argued that the two shows have certain similarities because both are based on Barris’ life. The main character’s significant other is a doctor in both shows because Barris’ wife is a doctor, he argued.

“The mere fact that you have two works that are inspired by Mr. Barris’ life does not mean the two works ended up the same,” Stiglitz argued.

Stiglitz also argued that certain jokes — such as the one about grape soda — are commonplace in comedic works about the African-American experience. The defense has argued that the two shows are in fact quite different, as the first was a workplace comedy featuring a single man considering cheating on his girlfriend, while “Black-ish” features a devoted family man with four children.

Jessner said she would take the arguments under consideration before issuing a final ruling. As of now, a trial is set for May 7.

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