In 1709 (or was it 1710?) the Statute of Anne created the first purpose-built copyright law. This blog, founded just 300 short and unextended years later, is dedicated to all things copyright, warts and all. To contact the 1709 Blog, email Eleonora at eleonorarosati[at]gmail.com
Saturday, 2 December 2017
Having the X Factor: TV formats can be protected by copyright if they have clearly identified features distinguishing them from similar types of shows
few weeks ago the High Court of England and Wales issued an important decision [discussed on IPKat
which, after a long time of uncertainty, has confirmed that TV formats are in
principle eligible for copyright protection under UK law.
Blog friend Paul Musa
(University of Southampton) analyzes the decision.
what Paul writes:
“In Banner Universal Motion Pictures Snowden J confirmed that copyright
protection is available to TV formats, provided that they achieve a minimum
standard. This standard is that they must have: (i) a number of clearly
identified features which, taken together, distinguish the show in question
from others of a similar type; and (ii) that those distinguishing features are
connected with each other in a coherent framework which can be repeatedly
applied so as to enable the show to be reproduced in recognisable form. However,
Minute Winner could not meet this standard because it was unclear and lacking
To give readers a bit
more context, this was a case management conference that was brought before the
High Court. One of the main issues that the court discussed was whether
copyright protection could subsist in a TV format, within the meaning of sections 1(1)(a)
of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA).
An action was brought by
Banner Universal Motion Pictures (BUMP) which had been assigned the rights to
“Minute Winner”. This was a format developed in 2003 by a Danish citizen called
On 11 November 2005, Mr
Banner met with the two principals from Friday TV in Stockholm. He alleged that
he gave them non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to sign regarding Minute Winner
and several other TV formats. As well as that, he mentioned the catchphrase
“you have a minute to win it”. This was disputed by the two principals of
Friday TV. They argued that other proposed TV formats, that did not include Minute
Winner, were instead discussed at this meeting. It is important to note that
the two principals refused to sign the NDAs and Mr Banner accepted this.
Ten days after the
meeting Mr Banner emailed one of them and attached ten more of their formats.
In 2009, Friday TV’s
holding company was acquired by Shine Limited. Later that year, Friday TV sold
the idea for a new game show to Realand Productions LLC, a part of NBC
The show was going to be
one in which a contestant could win $5 million by completing ten games in a row
in a studio. In 2008, the name for that show was Take the Money and Run. This
changed to Perfect 10 then to Don’t Blow It and then finally to Minute to Win
it in December 2009. This show first aired in the US in 2010 and was
subsequently broadcasted in the UK in 2011. Mr Banner became aware of this in
September 2011 and commenced an action against Friday TV in the Stockholm
District Court for infringing section 6 of the Swedish Trade Secrets Act.
His claim failed and
resulted in BUMP then bringing a claim in England. In relation to the copyright
claim, they argued that copyright subsists in the Minute Winner Document as an
original dramatic work, within the meaning of sections 1(1)(a) and 3(1) of the
The allegedly infringing TV gameshow
the High Court said
To begin with, Snowden J
stated that, for a TV format to be granted copyright protection, it must be an
original dramatic work. In regards to originality, the work must be the
author’s own intellectual creation (Infopaq; SAS).
However, this does not mean that every aspect of the work must be original. The
work must be taken as a whole and it can include aspects that are neither novel
Due to the CDPA not
defining what a dramatic work is, Snowden J applied Nourse LJ’s definition of a
dramatic work (Norowzian v Arks
Limited (No 2)  EMLR 67 at 73).
Nourse LJ defined it as "a work of action, with or without words or music,
which is capable of being performed before an audience”. Snowden J’s conclusion
was based on Nourse LJ’s definition: each recorded episode of a TV format can
qualify for copyright protection, as copyright would be infringed if another
party re-enacted it. However, he stressed that this case instead concerns
whether a format is separately capable of copyright protection.
Snowden J analysed the
reasoning of the judges in a seminal Privy Council decision on TV formats, that
was outside of this jurisdiction (Green v
Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand 
RPC 700). This case is relevant to the UK because New Zealand has
a similar closed-list system to the UK. Therefore, the reasoning of the
majority can be seen to be reflective of the UK’s reluctance to grant
protection in TV formats. Somers J, who was part of the majority, held that
such scripts as existed could not be a dramatic work because they could not be
acted or performed, being "no more than a general scheme for a proposed
Snowden J reformulated
Gallen J’s dissenting judgment in Green.
He stated that copyright protection will not subsist unless, as a minimum: (i) there is a number of clearly identified features which,
taken together, distinguish the show in question from others of a similar type;
and (ii) that those distinguishing features are connected with each other in a
coherent framework which can be repeatedly applied so as to enable the show to
be reproduced in recognisable form.
However, in applying such
criteria to this case Snowden J held that there was no realistic prospect of
the Minute Winner document qualifying for protection. Snowden J highlighted
that the performance of a task against the clock to win a prize was a common
feature of games shows. As well as that the Minute Winner document did not
specify key information such as the type of one minute tasks, who the
contestants should be or the length of the programme.
Snowden J also
highlighted that even if BUMP could establish copyright in its Minute Winner document,
the format described in the Minute Winner document and that used in Minute to
Win It were "different in every material respect". Thus meaning, that
there was no similarity beyond the fact that they both involved games played
against the clock for one minute.
Green, or the Opportunity Knocks case
of the ruling
This case is of great
significance to the media industry and highlights the dangers of sharing ideas
in a commercial environment, without copyright or contractual protection. It is
imperative that television producers and those with rights to TV formats,
ensure that they have robust non-disclosure agreements and that third parties
sign them. This is likely to be an easier route to enforcing one’s own rights,
as opposed to bringing a claim for copyright infringement and needing to
satisfy the requirements stated by Snowden J.
In order to increase the
chances of their TV format being afforded protection by copyright, TV producers
and broadcasters ought to include information such as where the action is to
take place, who the contestants should be, the selection process, the length of
the programme, when the show should be aired, the source of the prizes and catchphrases.
It is vital that TV producers and rights holders keep a constant and regularly
updated account of this information. In doing so they will have a better chance
than Mr Banner and BUMP, in meeting the minimum criteria set out in Snowden J's
However, the decision is
dangerous for how UK copyright is defined. This is because TV formats as
copyright subject-matter are dangerously on the verge of the idea side of the
idea/expression dichotomy. A difficulty in deciding these cases is
distinguishing between whether what has been copied is the expression of ideas,
rather than pure ideas themselves. It appears that TV format producers like the
claimant, bring these claims to protect the latter from being copied. However,
these claims are outside the remit of copyright protection.
Whilst Snowden J
correctly decided against granting copyright in Minute Winner, because a party cannot
claim a monopoly on games being played against the clock for one minute, it
cannot be said that other judges in the future will correctly do so as well.
Copyright does not grant monopoly rights and therefore, there is certainly
potential for things to get out of control if judges begin to grant monopoly
rights in TV formats. These practical concerns are a contributing factor as to why
the UK has been hesitant, to freely grant copyright protection to less
conventional works, like TV formats.”