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Protecting Pilot TV show ideas with copyright?

Posted by Steve Vondran | Nov 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

Attorney Steve® Copyright Essentials - Protecting your Reality Show idea with copyright registration

copyright protection for reality TV show script



Many people have ideas for TV shows, game shows, reality shows, and movies and want to protect their ideas with copyright.  However, will this work?  This blog discusses the importance of having a very well defined and specific written explanation akin to a screenplay in order to protect your writing with copyright.

Copyright Law - IDEAS are NOT protected

Some creators, producers, and authors want to "pitch their idea" to major network executives and believe if they copyright their idea, then pitch it, this will protect them in the event a show idea is stolen.  But copyright law does not protect IDEAS (although, I must admit I have seen registrations that border on this).  The law is stated by the United States copyright Office as follows:

"Copyright law does not protect ideas, methods, or systems. Copyright protection is therefore not available for ideas or procedures for doing, making, or building things; scientific or technical methods or discoveries; business operations or procedures; mathematical principles; formulas or algorithms; or any other concept, process, or method of operation. Section 102 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the U.S. Code) clearly expresses this principle:

“In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” Inventions are subject matter for patents, not copyrights."

So, as you can see, getting protection for a reality TV show "idea" is not going to work.  So, in most cases, what you want to do is to create something that IS PROTECTABLE.  In this regard, the copyright office circular states:

"Copyright protection extends to a description, explanation, or illustration of an idea or system, assuming that the requirements of copyright law are met. Copyright in such a case protects the particular literary or pictorial expression chosen by the author. But it gives the copyright owner no exclusive rights in the idea, method, or system involved. Suppose, for example, that an author writes a book explaining a new system for food processing. The copyright in the book, which comes into effect at the moment the work is fixed in a tangible form, prevents others from copying or distributing the text and illustrations describing the author's system. But it will not give the author any right to prevent others from adapting the system itself for commercial or other purposes or from using any procedures, processes, or methods described in the book.

So, if you adequately DESCRIBE your idea, you might be able to claim a copyright. But the idea should be something original, not something that's been done before.  For example, many people will come up with a show plot that is similar to something that already exists, like an idea for a show that is similar to the Voice, or American Idol.  The best thing to do is to come up with an original show concept and clearly describe in great detail your show, plot, characters, etc. so that you can be in the best position to protect it with copyright.

A literary work is not intended to be performed

Some people believe that an idea for a TV or game show can be copied as a "literary work."  However, according to the U.S.C.O:

"Literary works: “‘Literary works' are works, other than audiovisual works, expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia, regardless of the nature of the material objects, such as books, periodicals, manuscripts, phonorecords, film, tapes, disks, or cards, in which they are embodied.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. A literary work is a nondramatic work that explains, describes, or narrates a particular subject, theme, or idea through the use of narrative, descriptive, or explanatory text, rather than dialog or dramatic action. Generally, nondramatic literary works are intended to be read; they are not intended to be performed before an audience. Examples of nondramatic literary works include the following types of works: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, directories, catalogs, textbooks, reference works, advertising copy, compilations of information, computer programs, databases, and other textual works."

However, the better category for copyrightability of an idea for a TV pilot show is "Performing Arts" which is defined as:

"Works of the Performing Arts: For purposes of copyright registration, the U.S. Copyright Office uses the term “works of the performing arts” to refer collectively to the following works of authorship: musical works, including any accompanying words; sound recordings; dramatic works, including any accompanying music; choreographic works; pantomimes; audiovisual works; and motion pictures. “This class includes all published and unpublished works prepared for the purpose of being performed directly before an audience or indirectly by means of a device or process.” 37 C.F.R. § 202.3(b)(1)(ii)."

Attorney Steve® Tips to Copyright Protect and Pitch your TV show ideas

1.    Write out your reality or game show idea with as many details as possible.  This includes - (a) specific episode ideas, (b) character lists (clearly defined characters), (c) explain the plot of the show with as much detail as possible (rules, setting, etc.).  Put all this into ONE DOCUMENT and (d) include any photos or artwork.  When you register your copyright you will need to be able to upload a sample in a single file.

2.    Register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office and pay the required fee

3.   Once you have received a copyright registration certificate (you can pay extra, about $800 for expedited filing), you can be in a much better position to "pitch" your show to Hollywood, or other, movie executives.

4.  When pitching the show, FIRST have them sign a very detailed non-disclosure agreement  (NDA), we can help you with these and help you discuss general strategy (or even represent you in the pitch).  Having an experienced intellectual property lawyer on your side can add to your credibility.

5.  If you get an offer, you need to consider hiring California entertainment law counsel to help you negotiate the best terms of license or sale of your script.

6.  You also need to make sure you are paid the proper royalties if a deal is struck.

If your idea is stolen, you may have a "Theft of Idea" case, or copyright infringement case. You might also have a breach of contract case.  We can help you review your case if a major studio of TV producer has unlawfully misappropriated your idea or substantially copied your idea after you pitched it to them.  For example, when they say "no thanks" and then run with your copyrighted script.

NOTE:  After registering your copyright, make sure to also register with the Writer's Guild of America West ("WGA") which will keep your document on file for 5 years.  This is a Hollywood general standard.  You will want to include your copyright registration information and add this to the bottom of your title page.

ALSO NOTE:  Some people want to know if you can copyright your TV show's name.  Generally, no, protecting names is in the province of trademark law, not copyright.

Contact a California Copyright / Entertainment Law Firm to Help 

We can help review your screenplay or script for necessary elements and completion and help advise on ways to improve your script to make it more likely you will receive copyright registration, which becomes a public record and allows you to sue for any copyright infringement (this is now required if you want to file a lawsuit).  Without the ability to file a federal court lawsuit, you may find it difficult to enforce the theft of your show script.  We can also help with non-disclosure agreements and can help you "pitch" and/or seek to secure a contract deal that allows you to sell or assign your show concept. 

Call us at (877) 276-5084 for more information. 

We have offices in Santa Monica, San Diego, Newport Beach, Phoenix, and San Francisco.  We have provided quality legal advice since 2004.  Attorney Steve® earned the TOP GRADE (CALI EXCELLENCE AWARD) in contract law, and let me just say, it was a VERY LARGE CLASS of hopefuls!

About the Author

Steve Vondran

Thank you for viewing our blogs, videos and podcasts. As noted, all information on this website is Attorney Advertising. Decisions to hire an attorney should never be based on advertising alone. Any past results discussed herein do not guarantee or predict any future results. All blogs are written by Steve Vondran, Esq. unless otherwise indicated. Our firm handles a wide variety of intellectual property and entertainment law cases from music and video law, Youtube disputes, DMCA litigation, copyright infringement cases involving software licensing disputes (ex. BSA, SIIA, Siemens, Autodesk, Vero, CNC, VB Conversion and others), torrent internet file-sharing (Strike 3 and Malibu Media), California right of publicity, TV Signal Piracy, and many other types of IP, piracy, technology, and social media disputes. Call us at (877) 276-5084. AZ Bar Lic. #025911 CA. Bar Lic. #232337


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