Appeals Court Effectively Opens The Floodgates For People To Claim Hollywood 'Stole' Their Ideas
from the this-will-not-end-well dept
However, a new ruling in the 9th Circuit appeals court (which has a reputation for somewhat wacky rulings on intellectual property issues) may open the floodgates on these kinds of lawsuits. The ruling is an en banc ruling (meaning heard by all of the judges in the court), and it overturned the earlier ruling from the same court that was just done by a three judge panel. That means the only place to go from here is the Supreme Court, and it's not at all clear that the Supreme Court would be that interested in the case (as of now, I don't think there's a real split between circuit courts, which is often a key determining factor for the Supreme Court).
The ruling itself is on some rather specific and slightly technical aspects of copyright law vs. contract law. You can also watch the video of the one hour hearing that was held for this case earlier this year, which is also a good way to grasp some of the finer points:
Now, copyright law (again) does not cover ideas. You only get a copyright on the expression, but not the idea. However, there is a California state law that creates an implied contract in certain cases, and that's where this lawsuit hinges. The question is whether or not in presenting the idea for a TV show slightly similar to what is now Ghost Hunters, an implicit contract was formed, which meant that the SciFi Channel (now SyFy) couldn't make Ghost Hunters without working with the plaintiffs. While I have all sorts of issues with "implied" contracts in cases like this, the earlier rulings had thrown out the case based on the fact that this was really a copyright claim in disguise, and copyright law preempts the state contract laws, and then the case goes nowhere because this is really about an idea, which is uncopyrightable. Clean, simple and sensible.
Unfortunately, the majority here twists itself into contortions to claim that this is different. It claims that the specific argument is not about rights covered by copyright law, and thus it is a contractual dispute, where there is an implied contract. As the dissenting judges point out, this doesn't make much sense. The specific complaints by the plaintiffs are rights that are clearly provided under Copyright Law.
But the real issue here is that this will open the floodgates for similar lawsuits. We already see plenty, but they're usually quickly dismissed. Now there will be more such cases, where the focus will be on whether or not there's an "implied contract," when someone shows a studio a script or an idea. In the end, that's really only going to make it more difficult for people who have ideas, because studios aren't going to want to hear them for fear of future liability. If multiple people come up with similar ideas, studios shouldn't be forced to pay them all due to some bizarre implied contract...
This kind of ruling really seems to undermine the whole point of ideas not being copyrightable...