Over the last years, a vibrant global market for TV show formats has developed. New game show, casting, soap, telenovela, documentary and other formats are sold to broadcasting stations in dozens of countries, leading to a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry. As an analysis of U.S. and European intellectual property law demonstrates, TV show formats are difficult to protect by intellectual property rights. Standard theory would predict that in the absence of intellectual property protection, the TV show format industry has insufficient incentives to invest in creative innovation. This article presents a novel theory to explain why the TV show format market is thriving despite a low level of format protection. On the supply side of the industry, demand for TV formats is hard to predict, return on them is highly skewed, and market participants are both developing original formats and imitating others’ formats. On the demand side, TV formats are experience goods, and TV viewers sometimes prefer familiar products. As a result, the TV show format market is subject to herding effects on both sides of the market. The interaction of supply-side and demand-side herding leads to fashion cycles in TV show formats. The TV show format industry uses the limited protection against format imitation, but has adapted to the fashion cycle. This article tells the story of how an industry has developed institutions enabling it to cope with uncertain demand and unpredictable profitability, while benefiting from limited appropriability of innovation and from the fashion cycles which underlie the innovative process.After noting that neither trade dress nor patent law protects against imitating published TV formats, Bechtold considers copyright and unfair competition law.
In the United States, copyright law grants protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” While the potential media of expression are very broad, it is a guiding principle of U.S. – and, in fact, international – copyright law that copyright cannot subsist in ideas, facts, procedures, or concepts. As a result, and in contrast to patent law, copyright grants exclusive rights in the expression of a protected work, while its theme, plot, and ideas may be freely borrowed. As a result of the idea/expression dichotomy, the idea of running a cooking show is not copyrightable, while the expression of that idea in a particular show may be subject to copyright protection.
The idea/expression dichotomy is at the heart of the debate on whether TV show formats are copyrightable. And it is at this stage that many copyright claims against TV format imitation fail. A copyright infringement occurs if the plaintiff can prove that he owns a valid copyright in a work and that the alleged infringer copied protected elements of that work, making the plaintiff’s and the infringer’s works “substantially similar.” This requires that the infringer has misappropriated protectable expression. If the infringer has only built upon the idea of the plaintiff’s work, the copyright in that work has not been infringed. Even if a court finds that a TV format has copied copyrightable elements from another format, it also has to find both formats to be “substantially similar.”
In addition to the idea/expression dichotomy, other copyright doctrines contribute to the difficulty of protecting TV show formats. Under the scènes à faire doctrine, courts will withhold copyright protection if an expression embodied in a work necessarily flows from a commonplace idea, so that the unprotectable idea preordains the expression. Under the related merger doctrine, courts will not hold that a work’s original expression is copyrightable if the underlying idea can effectively be expressed in only one way.78 In such cases, the expression and its underlying idea are indistinguishable, and the merged item is not eligible for copyright protection.
Even though the scènes à faire and merger doctrines severely limit the possibility of protecting TV show formats by copyright law, they can still be protected as a compilation under Section 103 of the Copyright Act. In fact, the value of a TV format often stems from an interesting combination and symbiosis of various elements. A collection of preexisting materials or data arranged in a particular way can be copyrightable. Although facts or ideas cannot be protected by copyright, their compilation may be if the selection, coordination, and arrangement process exhibits a sufficient level of originality. While it is not unthinkable that a TV format might contain an arrangement of elements that can be protected as a compilation, a typical format which includes the plot, theme, characters, and similar items will simply be a collection of unprotectable ideas.
In general, copyright law is not very sympathetic to granting protection to TV show formats. This becomes apparent when analyzing the case law on published TV formats. In general, courts have been unwilling to grant copyright protection to TV formats. Most claims are dismissed, or settled out of court. When Fox Family, producer of Race Around the World, filed a copyright infringement suit against CBS’s production of The Amazing Race in 2000, the injunction was denied without discussing the copyright claim, and the case was voluntarily dismissed. When, shortly thereafter, CBS sued Fox over an alleged similarity between Survivor (CBS) and Boot Camp (Fox), the case was also dismissed and settled in a confidential settlement agreement.
But even when litigation continues, courts are leaning away from copyright protection of TV formats. In 2003, CBS sought a preliminary injunction against the broadcasting of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! by rival station ABC because of alleged similarities to Survivor, which had been a big success for CBS. Judge Loretta Preska of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York declined to grant the injunction. In an opinion delivered from the bench, Judge Preska found no substantial similarity between copyrightable elements of both formats. She noted that both shows “combined standard, unprotectable elements of reality shows, game shows and other television genres, and used them separately to create the programs.”
She also declined to grant protection to the Survivor format as a compilation, holding that the format consisted of a combination of unprotectable generic ideas. Recognizing that it is very hard to protect TV formats by copyright law, format developers and producers in the U.S. have turned their attention to unfair competition law. Setting aside confusion-based doctrines, which seldom prove helpful, common-law misappropriation torts are of only limited assistance, as they are severely limited by the preemption doctrine and by federal copyright law. Things look more favorable for plaintiffs if the case involves alleged breach of confidence. The litigation over Wipeout and The Glass House included, in each case, allegations that the format imitator hired productions staff from the original format developer in order to benefit from their experience and, potentially, confidential information. Such allegations can be very effective, even if they are only used as a threat in settlement negotiations.
Breach of confidence claims do not help the original format developer in a pure case of published TV format imitation. In practice, in many disputes over published TV format imitation, format imitators do not only observe the format characteristics on TV, but also lure away former staff from the original format developer. The industry has increasingly realized that, given the low protection U.S. intellectual property law affords published TV show formats, breach of confidence claims can be an important weapon against TV format imitation. Apart from employment relationships giving rise to breach of confidence theories, however, U.S. intellectual property law provides TV formats with very limited protection against imitation.
Under European intellectual property law, the situation is somewhat similar, although slightly more heterogeneous. As in the United States, whether European copyright law protects a TV format against imitation depends on whether the format is a copyrightable subject matter and whether substantial copying of copyrightable elements occurred between two formats. While the European Union has increasingly harmonized copyright laws across EU member states over the last 25 years, the European acquis communitaire does not cover all areas of copyright law. One of the areas of European copyright law which has not been harmonized by the legislator is the required standard of originality. While some European copyright directives have created standards of originality for particular work categories, outside their reach European copyright law fluctuates between an originality standard based on the “author’s own intellectual creation” (originally stemming from Continental European copyright systems) and a weakened “sweat of the brow” approach (originally stemming from the United Kingdom).
In recent years, the Court of Justice of the European Union has initiated an increasing harmonization of the standard of originality. Starting with a decision in 2009, the court has held on several occasions that a work must express “the author’s own intellectual creation” in order to be eligible for copyright protection.
The next few years will show what the relationship between this standard and the British approach really is. As no case law on TV show formats at the EU level exists and as, according to the Court of Justice of the European Union, it is still up to the national courts to determine whether a particular work fulfills the standard of originality, the article will now turn to the TV show format case law of the EU member states.
Germany has developed the most elaborate case law in Europe in this regard. In Germany, a rich academic literature on television-show formats has been developing over the last 20 years, and at least 15 court decisions have dealt with the protection of TV show formats. German courts usually decline to grant copyright protection against TV format imitation. The leading case involved an alleged imitation of a French TV show by a German TV station and was decided by the highest German court in civil matters (the Bundesgerichtshof) in 2003. In the French weekly show L’école des fans, which was initially broadcast from 1977 to 2002, children aged between four and six sang a song by a featured celebrity singer and received a grade for their performance. The celebrity was present in the show and sometimes sang the song along with the child.
In 1993, the German TV station broadcast a German version of the show which continued until 2006. The French company sued for copyright violation, arguing that the German show had copied the sequence of the show, the camera work, the dramaturgy, and the positioning of the candidates from the French version. The German court ruled in favor of the defendant. It held that the French show format was not a copyrightable work protected under German copyright law. While the court acknowledged that putting together the elements of the show format might represent some creative achievement, it held that a mere set of instructions on arranging elements was not subject to copyright protection even if the elements themselves might be copyrightable. As a result, format developers have not been successful in using German copyright law to prevent TV format imitation.
In France, similarly, copyright infringement actions against TV format imitation have often failed either because of the idea/expression dichotomy or because only non-copyrightable features were copied between similar formats.
In the United Kingdom, copyright protection of TV formats against format imitation likewise stands on shaky grounds. Various attempts to include formal format protection in U.K. copyright law failed in the 1990’s. In a TV format case from New Zealand, the Privy Council – New Zealand’s highest court of appeal at that time – held that the subject matter of a particular TV format broadcast in the U.K. (Opportunity Knocks) lacked sufficient certainty and unity to be copyrightable. This has become a landmark case on copyright protection of TV formats in the common-law world: In 2005, the High Court of the United Kingdom restated key principles of that decision in a case concerning magazine format copying, and drew an analogy with TV formats. Also in 2005, the Federal Court of Australia dismissed copyright claims against an alleged copy of a home renovation TV show on similar grounds. As a result of this case law, TV formats are hard to protect under U.K. copyright law.
While many European copyright systems are reluctant to grant protection against TV format imitation, TV format creators have sometimes been more successful by using unfair competition doctrines. Unlike the situation in the United States, in many European countries both intellectual property and unfair competition law are federal in nature. As a result, no preemption doctrine exists to assist courts in delineating either body of law.
The relationship between misappropriation doctrines and intellectual property protection is a complex one in Europe, but misappropriation doctrines frequently play a larger role than in the United States. Despite some harmonization of unfair competition law on the European level, apart from confusion-based claims the unfair competition laws of various European countries vary greatly in the level of protection they grant against unfair appropriation of a competitor’s product or service. At one end of the spectrum, France has an elaborate system of protection against “parasitic behavior” (concurrence parasitaire). In Germany, it is not unusual to take action against product imitation not only on copyright grounds, but also concurrently on the basis of unfair-competition-based doctrines of unfair copying or slavish imitation. At the other end of the spectrum, U.K. common law has no special provisions prohibiting imitation beyond intellectual-property- or confusion-based claims, and U.K. judges have upheld the freedom to imitate on many occasions. This heterogeneity in approaches is also reflected in the way national unfair competition laws treat TV format imitation. Under French unfair competition law, TV format copying may be considered either as ordinary “disloyal” competition (concurrence déloyale) or as parasitic behavior (concurrence parasitaire). Parasitic behavior requires neither confusion on part of the public nor a direct competitive relationship between both companies; but it does require extra elements that are not required for a copyright claim. It is similar to the misappropriation doctrine under U.S. common law, but much more expansive in scope and application.
Given the expansiveness of French unfair competition law, it is not surprising that French courts are comparatively open to applying such doctrines to TV format cases. One case of slavish imitation involves the U.S. format Rescue 911. A leading French public TV channel (Antenne 2) broadcast a reality show called La Nuit des Héros (Heroes’ Night) based on the U.S. format, which Antenne 2 had licensed from CBS. Two months after the show’s host had resigned from the show and from Antenne 2, a private TV channel competitor (TF1) broadcast a similar show entitled Les Marches de la Gloire (Steps of Glory), featuring the same host and using the same staff. Antenne 2 sued TF 1 for unfair competition, including commercial parasitism. In 1993, the Versailles Court of Appeal found TF1 guilty of both disloyal competition and parasitic behavior. The court cited the substantial similarities between the competing shows (same concept, construction, rhythm, cutting pattern, presentation style, illustration of moral values of daily life and sport, etc.) as well as the fact that TF1 had hired not only the same show host but the entire former team from Antenne 2, effectively disrupting Antenne 2’s activities. In the end, the court ordered TF1 to pay damages of 55 million French Francs, at that time the largest fine ever imposed in France for unauthorized copying of audio-visual content.
In Germany, several courts have had to decide whether TV format imitation violates unfair competition laws, but have usually denied such violation on a variety of grounds. While it may be theoretically possible for TV format copying to violate German unfair competition law in exceptional circumstances, no German court thus far has come to that conclusion. Finally, owing to the limited scope of unfair competition torts in the United Kingdom, in particular the lack of a broad misappropriation tort, the possibility of protecting TV formats by using unfair competition law is rather limited in the U.K.
As this analysis has shown, it is hard to protect TV formats against imitation under U.S. copyright law. In Europe, despite the harmonization of intellectual property laws over the last few decades, TV format imitation disputes are still subject to national laws. As far as pure cases of published TV format imitation are concerned, in Germany and the United Kingdom, TV formats are hard to protect by either copyright or unfair competition laws. While the situation looks similar in France with regard to copyright law, French unfair competition law is slightly more open to format protection, due to its broad “parasitic behavior” misappropriation doctrine, which is not necessarily preempted by French copyright law. When the format imitation also involves hiring staff from the original format developer, breach-of-confidence claims based on unfair competition doctrines may prove effective. This may explain why original format developers in Europe, as in the United States, are increasingly raising unfair competition or breach of confidence allegations, rather than copyright-based claims, against format imitators. In general, however, in all the countries analyzed, protecting TV formats against imitation is a complicated, uncertain, and cumbersome process.