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(Message started by: MichaelC on Dec 2nd, 2005, 12:41pm)

Title: Television Show
Post by MichaelC on Dec 2nd, 2005, 12:41pm
I am under the impression that American Idol is some how protected by law. Is this true?

Is it possible to patent or protect a television show or idea. How indepth could it go? Just the idea, or methods used, what about the method of voting on a particular singer?

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by JimIvey on Dec 2nd, 2005, 1:38pm
Well, the recordings of the show are copyrighted (most likely).  In other words, you probably can't record a season on your TiVo, burn to DVD and sell on ebay without really annoying the producers of American Idol and probably getting into serious trouble.

I'm guessing the name "American Idol" is a trademark, probably registered (or in the process of being registered).  So, if you want to have a competitive singing reality TV show, you probably can't call your show "American Idol" or anything so similar to "American Idol" to make people think it comes from the same production company.  I'm guessing "African American Idol", "Asian American Idol", "American Idle", etc. are all off-limits.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what's protectable.  The protectable "expression" under copyright law generally isn't limited to exact duplication of the recorded shows but can stretch into more abstract things like the ideas of competitive singing in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.  However, the protection afforded by copyright is limited to things that are "original."  In this case, the show is clearly derivative of The Gong Show and Star Search and perhaps countless other competitive entertainment shows.  I'm sure the owners of American Idol would beg to differ.  That's why we have courts and lawyers, to help resolve these differences of opinion in a peaceful manner.

On the method of voting, I think that's just too general for copyright protection.  It's possible that they have patents pending for some voting techniques, but I think I've seen toll calls used for audience voting at least 10 years ago.  I would be surprised to see any patents in the technology used by American Idol to be uniquely associated with American Idol.

Regards.

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by Isaac on Dec 2nd, 2005, 6:26pm
I think I disagree with Jim a little concerning the scope of protection for a television show concept under copyright law.
IMO under US law, copyright offers essentially no protection for the concept of a TV show.  While copyright would prevent the copying
of a description of a show, it would not prevent someone from performing a show based on that description.

Other countries may be more willing to protect such a show using copyright laws.

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by JSonnabend on Dec 5th, 2005, 8:43am

Quote:
The protectable "expression" under copyright law generally isn't limited to exact duplication of the recorded shows but can stretch into more abstract things like the ideas of competitive singing in front of a panel of judges and a live audience.

It's hornbook law that ideas are not protectable by copyright, only the expression of ideas.  Sometimes, the expression of an idea is so close to the idea itself that the two merge, rendering copyright protection unavailable.  I think that is most definitely the case of singing in front of a panel of judges.

- Jeff

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by JimIvey on Dec 5th, 2005, 10:05am
I've said this before somewhere in here...  I think it's too simplistic to say that ideas are unprotectable.  I know it's "hornbook law" -- one of the foundational tenants of intellectual property law as learned by law students.  However, I find it to be a somewhat useless rule -- copyright people often spout that the expression is protectable, not the underlying idea.  Unless you fully understand what copyright law means by "expression" and "idea", this statement is of little or no help.  I suppose, if I had spent years studying and arguing the distinction, I'd have some gestaltian understanding of the distinction, much like I do about the concept of "obviousness".  But I didn't, so I don't.

Somewhere I read an alternative framing of the issue of expression vs. idea -- and I really should have remembered who presented that framing.  It was someone that all law students and lawyers would recognize -- perhaps Learned Hand.  The alternative framing was varying levels of abstraction of an idea.  A idea with very little abstraction is an expression.  An idea with too great a level of abstraction is unprotectable.  Somewhere in the middle is that line that separates the protectable from the unprotectable.  

The reason I bristle at the broad statement that ideas are unprotectable is that such is precisely what I've done for a living now for 15 years -- turn ideas into protectable property.  So, outside of copyright law with the specific meaning attributed to "idea" in that context, I don't think that statement is quite true.

Regards.

P.S.  All this is based on the assumption that Whelan is still good law or at least hasn't been abandoned altogether.  My apologies if that's not the case.

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by Isaac on Dec 5th, 2005, 7:17pm
Jim, I agree generally with your point about the idea vs expression dichotomy.  While the principle is valid, it may be difficult to apply it to reach a conclusion that some level of abstraction is the cutoff in a particular case.

But that said, there are US and UK cases suggesting that formats for television shows are on the unprotectable side of the line, while Brazil may be an example of a country that holds otherwise.
The most recent US case involved a TV show allegedly copying the format of Survivor.

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by JimIvey on Dec 5th, 2005, 8:03pm
Hi Isaac,

I didn't mean to suggest that there's a broader scope of protection specifically for TV shows.  I just bristle at the assertion that ideas aren't protectable without qualification as to what that really means.

What I think is kind of funny is when I say I don't understand the expression/idea dichotomy and the person I'm talking to acts like English isn't my first language -- talking louder and more slowly -- "I-DEEE-UUUHS are not protectable.  ECKKKSSSPRESSSHHHUUUUUUNS of the idea are protectable."  Oh, when you say it like I'm stupid, it makes sense!  ;-)

Regards.

Title: Re: Television Show
Post by Isaac on Dec 6th, 2005, 12:45am
I think you understand the dichotomy well enough. It's just that unless you have some reason based on case law or persuasive argument to say that x is expresson and y is the underlying idea, then citing the rule may be just an attempt to disguise a mere assertion as an argument by labelling.

But that said, there is a lot of case law on the subject, so that often saying something is idea and not expression is enough at least between people having familiarity with enough of the law.
For example if the underlying idea is something like telephone numbers in an alphabetical listing, we know where to draw the line.
There is also a bit of help in some cases from 17 USC 102(b) which lists a number of things which are not protectable by copyright.

Of course 102(b) explicitly says that ideas are not protectable by copyright.



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