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Friday, 27 February 2004

THE MARRIAGE OF COPYRIGHT AND PROGRAMME FORMATS

A feature in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph draws attention to British TV producers who are finding that the format of their successful programmes is being copied abroad. It focuses in particular on the reality TV show Wife Swap, produced by UK company RDF Media, which has spawned unauthorised imitators in Germany, Hungary and Austria. The Austrian version is particularly controversial since it has dabbled in politics, pairing a family of avowed racists with a Turkish immigrant couple. However, much to the chagrin of producers, it appears that there’s little that they can do about the copycats. This is because the principle that there is no copyright in an idea prevents the idea behind a programme format from being protected by copyright. While programme makers will have copyright in their scripts, this won’t be of much assistance in protecting unscripted reality TV shows. All they can rely on are any trade mark registrations they have for the programme title and the law of passing if the public will be deceived into thinking the programme was made with the original producer’s blessing (but even then there may be tricky territorial issues regarding where the reputation is if the two programmes are shown in different countries). One response taken by producers has been to produce “programme bibles” which give licensees intricate details of how they can achieve the effect of the earlier show.

While the IPKat does feel a bit uncomfortable about the idea of people being able to copy the work of others, he feels that the principles that limit the effects of copyright law are sound, and producers can’t expect a special exception for TV programme formats. Although he understands that people want to see their investments protected, recognising programme formats would entail recognising copyright in ideas to a greater or lesser extent. This would upset the balance that has been struck between IP protection and free competition. Recognising that investment is worthy of protection per se may well involve a more general, anti-misappropriation approach.

Accountants - your number is up here
Catch up with your favourite reality TV programmes here
Unreality TV here
Why wife swapping is a bad idea here

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