Can You Copyright The Most Basic Concepts Of Reality TV?

from the apparently-someone-is-trying dept

Remember that old joke about how copyright law is only supposed to protect the specific expression and not the idea? Yeah… that was a good one. It seems that every day we hear yet another story about people and companies trying to claim much more than “the expression” when claiming copyright control over something. Take for example, this threat from CBS against ABC, claiming that ABC’s in-production reality show, called Glass House, violates the copyrights CBS holds in its reality show, Big Brother:

CBS is the exclusive U.S. licensee of Big Brother, which it has been broadcasting since 2000. Big Brother is a reality television series in which a group of people live together in a large house, isolated from the outside world. The contestants are filmed continuously. Each cycle of the series begins with 12-14 contestants, and over the course of three months, contestants survive periodic evictions. Through interactive features, viewers are able to have input into aspects of the show, such as challenges in which the participants compete. The last contestant standing wins. Like other valuable creative works, Big Brother is protected by copyright law, and anyon creating substantially similar work without authorization — as appears to be the case with ABC in this instance — is liable for copyright infringement.

Reading through that description, it appears to describe the basics of pretty much every reality TV show ever. That is, it’s a bunch of basic ideas that are used widely, usually with some variation here and there, but it’s a pretty simple — and totally unprotectable — formula. Of course, as the article linked above notes, similar lawsuits have ended in settlement, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see ABC cave and settle here as well, even if it seems to have a pretty strong case that everything it’s doing is perfectly legit. But, really, when’s the last time you saw Disney fight against anyone overclaiming copyright? Yeah, it’s not likely to start now. So, we’re back to telling old jokes…

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Companies: abc, cbs

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Comments on “Can You Copyright The Most Basic Concepts Of Reality TV?”

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Jay (user link) says:

long stretch

I’m not a lawyer, but this is such a stretch of copyright law, I can’t imagine a court listening to this for twelve seconds. Perhaps if CBS had filed for a PATENT on the idea of a reality show, they could claim patent infringement. That seems like a stretch, too, but at least it’s not an insane one.

By the way, I posted a blog entry about ten years about about what I considered irresponsible behavior by a TV network. I believe that gives me a copyright on the idea of writing about TV. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.

Anonymous Coward says:

While we’re at it, why doesn’t a TV network file a bunch of lawsuits against other TV networks for violating their copyright on shows about totally dysfunctional families who have crazy adventures in their crazy daily lives?

Oh, and someone else should sue over all the TV networks who violate the copyright on TV shows about police officers/detectives solving crimes and catching criminals.

And Cartoon Network should sue everyone else showing cartoon shows for violating their copyright on animated shows about silly/stupid cartoon characters getting into wacky adventures. As well as animated shows about super heroes saving the world each episode from super villains.

That ought to cover just about everything except sports and the news that’s shown on TV.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Remember that old joke about how copyright law is only supposed to protect the specific expression…”

No, actually. “Specific” would certainly apply to the far “expression” end of the spectrum, and “abstract” would certainly apply to the far “idea” end of the spectrum.

But only the ignorant or those in the straw man industry would claim that only the “specific” is “expression” entitled to protection.

There is a middle ground that is neither “specific” nor “abstract.”

Anonymous Coward says:


Always with the downer comment.
( reality sucks… thanks for reminding us )

shakes head and is scared to dream again

You couldn’t let us fantasize for even a little while… could you ?
Leigh Beadon you are a Dream Crusher !
You probably ” get off ” on it : )

Goes off to cry about being forever stuck with reality TV

was I nice thought tho…. eh ?

DannyB (profile) says:

Shouldn't CBS be using Patent law not Copyright law?

Shouldn’t CBS get a patent on Big Brother?

After all, if Apple can own rectangles with round corners, then surely CBS should be able to patent Big Brother.

The patent could have a number of claims — or they could just be separate patents.

* Method and system of imprisoning mentally unstable people into closed environment for entertainment

* Method and system of filming even the most intimate private moments of their lives

* Method and system of selecting someone to eject at end of each episode

* Method and system of inducing participants into consuming alcohol

* Method and system of providing unlimited free alcohol

* Method and system of irritating and annoying contestants

* Method and system of furnishing contestants with loaded firearms

Anonymous Coward says:

Shouldn't CBS be using Patent law not Copyright law?

That’d never fly. You would find infringing:

* The U.S. prison system

* The NSA and FBI, as well as the Governor of Virginia

* Most Japanese game shows

* College parties

* GOOD college parties

* Most American game shows

* The NRA

I know you’re just being sarcastic, but I wouldn’t dare risk pissing off a rowdy, boozed-up college crowd.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copyright is mentioned in the letter as noted above, but the gravamen of the letter is based primarily upon trade secret law and breach of confidentiality agreements by 18 alums of the CBS show who have migrated over to ABC and are purportedly working on the new program.

Is there a copyright claim here? Quite possibly there is based upon the totality of the various elements making up the CBS program. These elements are certainly much better defined than the mere idea that one locks up a bunch of idiots in a home and kick them out one by one until there is only one idiot left.

Nevertheless, it is the other legal concerns raised in the letter that appear to have substantially more merit and, potentially, much more in the way of monetary damages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Nobody, except those misrepresenting copyright law, has ever said that copyright protection only applies to “specific” expression, yet that is the basis for Mike’s “joke.”

Rather, the “specific” and the “abstract” exist at opposite ends of the idea/expression spectrum. The specific is expression, which can be protected, while the abstract is idea, which cannot. But the dividing line on what can be protected is somewhere in the middle (i.e., covering more than just the “specific”, which exists on one end of the spectrum).

He is misrepresenting what copyright is “supposed” to do, then criticizing it’s failure to do so.

Clear enough?

Gleep says:

Is reality TV even covered under copyright? I just ask because it occurs to me that reality tv is filming stuff that’s actually happening…like the news (as opposed to movie sets, special effects, and actors playing characters). In every other piece of art, the artist has control over aspects of the artwork, like lighting, color composition, story/plot, character direction, etc. But in reality tv, no one knows who’s going to do what from one episode to the next or who the winner/losers are going to be (at least in theory) so there doesn’t seem to be any creativity put into the show except to “stuff a bunch of idiots into a house and eliminate them”. Which doesn’t seem like something that can be copyrighted since its an idea and not, in and of itself, an expression.

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