Big Brother v. Life in a Glass House Law Suit: Challenging the Notion of Being Unable to Copyright an Idea
The first thing a student of Copyright Law learns is that you can only copyright the developed concept, not the idea. In an interesting recent case regarding Reality TV Copyright, however, CBS is challenging this rule in their lawsuit against ABC. In the suit, CBS claims that ABC's upcoming reality show Life in a Glass House is a "carbon copy" of their show
Big Brother. On May 14, 2012 CBS asked the court for a preliminary injunction to stop development of ABC's new series before its scheduled June 18th premiere. ABC has shot back at CBS arguing that their copyright infringement claim will fail because "CBS must realize it cannot copyright the idea of 14 contestants living in a house rigged with cameras."
Another fundamental rule of copyright law is that once an idea is made available to the public via media, such as through movies and television, it is not infringement to use that idea. Without this basic notion there would never be genre films like the hundreds of horror-slasher series that all have the same basic premise of teenagers being perused by a killer. CBS tries to side step this rule by claiming Life in a Glass House is a violation of trade secrets. This claim may have some merit as 19 of the production staffers of ABC's new series formerly worked on
Big Brother. CBS argues that because of these 19 staffers, CBS 's "trade secrets are likely being disclosed on the production of
Glass House every day."
This claim however, is likely to fail. As ABC points out, there is nothing secret about a show that has aired on CBS (and around the world via deals with Creator Endemol) since the year 2000. In addition, ABC points out that they haven't even finalized rules or constructed a set so to be considered a "carbon copy" is bit of a stretch. Furthermore, with the limited amount of work done on Life in a Glass House ABC was still able to point out substantial differences between the two shows. For example, on
Big Brother the contestants are isolated from the world, it is an every-man-for-himself theme, and there is a host (Julie Chen). On
Life in a Glass House contestants communicate with the outside world via social media, and engage in teamwork to compete. Also, there is no host for the show.
The question that remains is whether or not CBS can prevent ABC from airing Life as a Glass House. The answer is likely no but raises another question. Is a show in development an idea or a developed concept that can be protected by copyright law? To date, Courts have said "no" to the protection question when it comes to ideas for reality shows…but there is always that gray area of the law that remains unpredictable so stay tuned. One thing we can be sure of is there will be many more interesting cases regarding reality TV copyrights in the future!
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