While this question has received an answer in the affirmative in a number of jurisdictions around the world [this blog recently reported on the latest judgment of the Italian Supreme Court to confirm eligibility for protection of this subject-matter under Italian law], under UK law things have been uncertain for a long time.
One of the reasons for such uncertainty is the outcome of the Opportunity Knocks case (Green v Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand), in which a claim to the copyright in the format for a game show failed. However, it is important to recall that one of the principal reasons why the action was dismissed is that no scripts were available at trial and in any case they contained little more than general ideas and concepts.
Leading UK copyright commentaries like Copinger and Skone James have indeed highlighted how (§3.93) "[t]here is no reason in principle ... why a format should not be protectable as a dramatic work [under section 1(1)(a) and section 3 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)] if it contains a sufficient record of how the show is to be presented."
Last week a response in the sense of eligibility for copyright protection of TV formats under UK law also came from the High Court of England and Wales.
In Banner Universal Motion Pictures Ltd v Endemol Shine Group Ltd & Anor  EWHC 2600 (Ch), the court held that a TV format can be potentially protected by copyright, although in the specific case the action failed.
The action was brought by Banner Universal Motion Pictures (BUMP, a UK company), in its capacity as assignee of the rights to the Minute Winner format developed in 2003 by a Danish citizen, against - amongst others - a Swedish TV production company (Friday TV).
The claimant submitted that, further to a 2005 meeting in Stockholm at which confidential information was disclosed, including the disclosure of catch-phrase “You have a minute to win it” [at the time when the action was brought in the UK Swedish court had already ruled that no confidential information had been disclosed; the High Court of England and Wales declared that the cause of action estoppel operated], Friday TV misused such information to develop a gameshow format: Minute to Win It. This show first aired in the US in 2010 and was subsequently broadcast in the UK in 2011. Rights to Minute to Win It were sold in over 70 countries around the world.
The Minute Winner format
The format of the claimant is described in the Minute Winner Document presented bto the court as follows:
Mini-format Game show
Daily or weekly show.
Or short one minute between main programs.
Morning, Evening or Afternoon program.
One minute, or 30 minutes with several winnings."
Minute Winner is further described as “a television program in which people are given one minute to win something. WHERE? The program takes place in a studio (and in location: street, shopping mall or unexpected at people's homes). The program is cheaper to produce on location, as it only requires a cameraman, soundman, a host and a stopwatch PRIZES [examples are provided in the rest of the format document] The prizes are sponsored by firms/companies in exchange with advertisements during the program."
The Minute Winner Document further adds that "The combination of luck and pure coincidence is a factor that would make people wish that one day they could be stopped on the street and be given a chance to win something on television."
As to showing times, the Document clarifies that "The program can be shown daily (optional) as a one-minute fill in, before or after a main program. Minute Winner can also be shown either as a morning program, afternoon program or evening access prime time program."
The Document also contains the following disclaimer:
"Concept created by Derek Banner/Bump Productions. Copyright 2003, all rights reserved. This format is protected under the international copyright law and intellectual property protection. It shall not be transmitted, exploited, copied produced, used, disclosed or distributed, in part or in its entirety, without permission from its owner."
BUMP submitted that copyright subsists in the Minute Winner Document as an original dramatic work under the CDPA. It did not submit that it was also a literary work, because such categories under UK law are mutually exclusive.
As regards originality, Snowden J recalled that – further to SAS v WPL [of course informed by relevant case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union which arguably mandates something more than the just “sufficient skill, labour or effort” traditionally indicated by UK courts since University of London Press], what is required is “that the work must be an expression of the author's own intellectual creation … This does not, however, mean that every constituent aspect of a work must be original. The work must be taken as a whole, and can include parts that are neither novel nor ingenious.”
Notion of dramatic work
The court then recalled that, although the expression ‘dramatic work’ is not defined in the statute, it must be given its ordinary meaning. This, in Norowzian v Arks Ltd (No 2) was said to be that of “a work of action, with or without words or music, which is capable of being performed before an audience."
According to Snowden J, while the unauthorized re-enactment of a recorded episode of a TV game show or quiz show would likely amount to copyright infringement, what was at stake in this case was NOT the single episodes of Minute Winner, since the show was never produced.
The question was rather “whether what is usually referred to as the "format" of a television game show or quiz show is separately capable of being protected by the law of copyright.”
The judge noted that his is a question that has been considered in comparatively few cases.
A format as a protectable dramatic work
“it is at least arguable, as a matter of concept, that the format of a television game show or quiz show can be the subject of copyright protection as a dramatic work. This is so, even though it is inherent in the concept of a genuine game or quiz that the playing and outcome of the game, and the questions posed and answers given in the quiz, are not known or prescribed in advance; and hence that the show will contain elements of spontaneity and events that change from episode to episode.” [para 43]
Requirements for protection
What is required for a format to be protected is explained at para 44 of the decision:
“copyright protection will not subsist unless, as a minimum, (i) there are 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.”
The format at issue
Having affirmed the potential eligibility for copyright protection of TV formats, Snowden J however excluded that Minute Winner could be protected. In fact,
“tested against any of those requirements [indicated above], there is no realistic prospect of BUMP persuading a court that the contents of the Minute Winner Document qualified for copyright protection. In my view, those contents are both very unclear and lacking in specifics, and even taken together they did not identify or prescribe anything resembling a coherent framework or structure which could be relied upon to reproduce a distinctive game show in recognisable form. The features were, in truth, commonplace and indistinguishable from the features of many other game shows.” [para 46]
Breach of confidence and passing off
The court also dismissed the claims for breach of confidence (for the reason indicated above) and passing off, the latter on grounds that the claimant did not possess the necessary goodwill [including actual customers in the UK, as per the Supreme Court decision in Starbucks] to succeed in its claim.
This decision sheds light on an area of UK copyright that has remained uncertain for a long time, also due to the rigid and closed system of categories envisaged by the CDPA.
However, as the outcome of the case confirms, wannabe holders of copyright in TV formats must pay substantial attention when drafting relevant documents, and provide as many details and information as possible. Another crucial aspect when it comes to potentially commercially valuable works like TV formats is to draft and rely on robust non-disclosure agreements, also to offset the fact that relevant documents should be sufficiently detailed.
[Originally published on The IPKat on 23 October 2017]