Posted by Mr. Q at 6:00 AM Friday, June 14, 2013
Putting together the pitch. There's a lot that goes into a TV pilot pitch: an outline, production costs, loglines -- short summaries of several episodes -- and sometimes a sample script. All of these elements can be protected by copyright and you can chase anyone who reproduces these elements using copyright law but ...
Protecting ideas. The trouble with relying on copyright protection is that it won't protect your underlying ideas -- the kernel on which the pitch is based. For example, the idea of an African prince coming to the U.S., losing everything, and being forced to fend for himself in an urban environment, is not an idea that can be protected by copyright. The people who submitted this idea to Paramount studios were not paid when the movie, "Coming to America" was produced. They were able to achieve a small victory when they sued under a theory -- not copyright -- that a contract was breached (the option agreement that Paramount and the writers had signed).
The implied contract. Unfortunately, not everyone pitching an idea signs an option agreement. So lawyers became more creative and subsequent idea-theft cases expanded the theory to "implied contracts." That is, the idea for a dance competition show was submitted with the understanding of being compensated, even though there was no written contract. Ditto for a pitch that turned into a show called Royal Pains. These implied contract claims often fail or are settled as nuisance lawsuits (it's cheaper to settle than deal with the court case). And those that succeed usually take years before a recovery or settlement. For that reason, the best protection is some form of documentation like an option agreement. Studios or producers are wary, particularly if the idea is unsolicited or the person making the pitch is unknown. For that reason, lawyers believe the best strategy is to avoid pitching an idea until the other side conveys some interest in hearing it and it is clear that the arrangement is for compensation. And of course, document all of this. (Here's a previous entry, and another on idea submission protection -- and here's an article on the history of this type of protection.)