CBS, which has been broadcasting reality TV show Big Brother in the United States since 2000, recently found out that ABC was developing a very similar show called The Glass House, due to be launched on 18 June. The similarities between the shows are obvious: both involve a group of people living together, under the scrutiny of television cameras (and therefore the public), with no outside contact. In both the contestants are voted off the show over time, with the last person left in the house being the "winner".CBS warned ABC not to proceed with The Glass House. It received no response so in May CBS issued a federal court claim against ABC for, amongst other things, copyright infringement, trade secret misappropriation and unfair competition.
On 15 June the court denied CBS a temporary restraining order over ABC to prevent The Glass House from being broadcast.
|(c) Nuno Cardoso
David Ginsburg, Executive Director of UCLA School of Law’s Entertainment, Media, and Intellectual Property Law department said in the Huffington Post that:
"CBS is too astute and is too well-represented not to have expected the court's reasoning and these results. If so, what motivates the relentless attempts by reality TV plaintiffs to seek injunctive and damage relief that courts are simply not granting?"
The question arises therefore: what can be protected? The plethora of talent contest shows (X Factor, The Voice, American Idol, America's/Britain's Got Talent) which have nearly identical formats indicates that not much can be protected. Consider however game shows such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The format is no more complex than can be found in other shows, however the franchise is the most internationally popular TV franchise of all time, having aired in more than 100 countries worldwide. Broadcasters must be paying for something more than trade marks, they must be buying the right to use the format, implying that it is in some way protected.What is protected boils down to the idea/expression dichotomy. Article 2 of the WIPO Copyright Treaty and Article 9(2) of the TRIPS Agreement both provide that copyright protection extends to expressions of ideas but not to ideas themselves. This means that the concept of a reality TV show where contestants live in a house being filmed 24 hours a day cannot be protected by copyright, whereas the film made of them by the production team can.
Under US law CBS would have to show that The Glass House is substantially similar to Big Brother, a standard which requires a high coincidence of shared expressive content. Had the case been brought in the UK CBS would have to show that a substantial part of Big Brother had been taken and reproduced in The Glass House. The courts would have considered whether The Glass House was original in its own right. Case law indicates that English law is line with the US (for example Meakin v BBC& Others  EWHC 2065 (Ch)), i.e. that TV formats are not protected.However one should consider the implications of the recent "red bus case" in which the Patents County Court held that a recreation of a photograph of a red bus, going over Westminster Bridge, against a monochrome background, infringed copyright in a similar earlier photo. Based on that logic it is very possible that, if the shows were sufficiently similar, CBS's claim might have succeeded in the UK.
Format rights are big business in all countries, so it seems logical that they should be protected. Perhaps the red bus case might give Channel 5 a leg to stand on should The Glass House come to the UK.