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NY Federal Appeals Court Supports “Theft of Idea” Claim

In big news for the TV and film industry in particular, the Second Circuit (the Federal Appeals Court that covers, among other states, New York) ruled that a claim could be brought for “theft of an idea” when a TV network takes an idea that was protected by a contract between the parties.

In Forest Park Pictures v. Universal Television Network the lawsuit was brought by Hayden Christiansen (Darth Vader in the horrible Star Wars prequels), his brother Tove (a Canadian film/TV producer) and their production company, Forest Park Pictures. Several years ago, the plaintiffs submitted a written idea for a television show (called a “series treatment”) to USA Networks (a subsidiary of Universal). It was about a doctor who gets fired from his job for constantly rendering free treatment to poor people then finds himself working as a “concierge” doctor for the rich and famous. The network liked what they saw in the written treatment and invited the Christiansen brothers to the network for an in-person pitch. Though the pitch led to a couple of other meetings, eventually the network took a pass on the idea.

Or did they? A little less that four years after the last meeting, USA released the series “Royal Pains” about a doctor who gets fired from his job for constantly rendering free treatment to poor people then finds himself working as a “concierge” doctor for the rich and famous. Sound familiar? It did to the plaintiffs as well who promptly brought suit.

The lower court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims because it relied on the well-established principle that you can’t copyright an idea. After all, the Copyright Act states very clearly:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea [or] concept…, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

The lower court stated that State contract law was preempted by the Federal Copyright Act to the extent that it seeks to stop the theft of an idea. [For non-lawyer followers and readers of this blog “preemption” generally means that if a Federal law covers a subject and indicates an intent by the Federal government to be the final word on that subject, State law cannot do anything differently than the Federal law]. But the Second Circuit disagreed.

What the court ruled was that the plaintiffs claimed there was an implied promise to pay them if USA networks used the idea. This was some creative lawyering on the part of the plaintiffs because it meant that they were NOT seeking to enforce their copyright in the idea, but rather just seeking to enforce the promise by USA to pay them for the idea.

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USA then argued that if there was such a contract it was unenforceable because no price had been agreed upon. But the court dismissed that argument as well saying that at trial the plaintiffs could prove what the industry standard would be for such an idea being used. So the case now moves forward to discovery proceedings and trial, though it will probably be settled if Universal doesn’t appeal to the US Supreme Court.

But for now, while this is still the law in NY and California, folks looking to pitch ideas to networks should include in their Non-compete, non-disclosure agreements one sentence that includes a promise by the networks (or production company) to pay the submitter should they use the idea in any way. That promise is now enforceable in NY even though the Copyright Act says an idea is not otherwise protectable. As someone who regularly gets asked to send pitches to networks (most won’t accept them directly from the writer, they want them sent through an agent or lawyer) I am very pleased with this decision even if it took a young Darth Vader to get it. May the Law be With You Young Skywalkers.

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