HOW DO I PROTECT MY IDEA FOR A REALITY TELEVISION SHOW?

It seems like almost every day I get a call from someone asking me how they can protect their idea for a reality TV show.  So it seems like a good time to write a blog post giving some sort of answer. The short (and glib) answer is that you really can’t protect the idea for a reality show.  The reason being that ideas themselves are not protectable by copyright, only the expression of that idea.  For proof of this, you need only look at the similarity of reality shows that are already on the air.  Almost all of them fall into one of five categories.

1.  The Competition Show: Starting with American Idol, it includes America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, The Voice, Top Chef, Dancing with the Stars, Last Comic Standing, America’s Next Top Model, and Project Runway.  All of these shows have amateur contestants competing in various skills (singing, dancing, cooking, stand-up comedy, fashion), judges judging the outcome, and a weekly vote (by the judges or America) in which one contestant is sent packing.

2.  The Job Show: Cops, Million Dollar Matchmaker, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, Sold.  Just pick a profession, and have camera’s follow people around doing their job.  Why they haven’t done a show about a charismatic copyright lawyer yet, I have no idea.

3.  The Fly On the Wall Show:  Get a group of people from the same or different socio-economic group together and watch the sparks fly.  Examples are Big Brother, Real World, The Surreal Life, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of New Jersey, Teen Mom.

4.  The Celebrity Show: Pick a celebrity (or someone who thinks they are a celebrity) and follow them around.  Before the ever-present Kardashians, there were similar shows following Jessica Simpson, Brittney Spears, Hulk Hogan, Ozzie Osborne, Gene Simmons, Anna Nicole Smith and Hugh Hefner.

5.  The Looking for Love Show:  Besides the on-going Bachelor and Bachelorette, there was Flavor of Love, Rock of Love, and I Love New York on VH1 and Boy Meets Boy on Bravo.

So take a look at this list for a minute.  Don’t you think that if a format like American Idol was protectable, that Fox would do everything in its’ power to get The Voice and America’s Got Talent off the air?   And wouldn’t ABC have sued VHI for Flavor of Love if the idea behind The Bachelor was protectable?  Of course they would.  The fact that they haven’t should give you some indication as to their protectability.   So, if your idea falls into one of these categories, or if it is fairly similar to some other show but with a little twist, it’s really not protectable.

But does that mean that anyone can just steal my idea without paying me?

No.  But it means that in order to be able to prevail in a lawsuit, you better have something more than a one sentence log line.   There is a concept under California law called “idea misappropriation,” which basically says that if you pitch an idea to a production company, there may be an implied contract created in which it is agreed that you will be compensated if they use your concept.  The problem is that while the concept of idea misappropriation sounds good in theory, in practice these sorts of cases are very difficult and expensive to win.   And what you are really interested in is making sure your idea isn’t ripped off in the first place, so you get proper credit and compensation, not possibly winning an expensive lawsuit years in the future.

So how do I not get ripped off in the first place?

Ahh, that’s the $64,000 question.  Here are my suggestions.

First, if this is your first pitch, instead of going directly to a production company, think about partnering up with a more established producer.  Not Mark Burnett (or someone at his level) but someone smaller, who is willing to make a deal with you to share credit.

There are some good reasons for doing this. By teaming with an established producer, you lessen the chances that a production company will steal your idea. While a production company may not care about pissing you off, it’s going to be more careful about screwing over someone more established

Also, the established producer may be able to help you in improving your pitch. For beginners, it is sometimes difficult to understand all of the various elements that go into a successful reality show. A more experienced producer can help figure out potential problems with your concept, so you can make changes before you get into the pitch room.

Second, you can try getting an agent. Now I know that it’s difficult to find an agent, and no, I can’t recommend an agent for you. But if you can get one, especially one at a bigger agency, you stand less of a chance of being ripped off. Again, it’s not you the production company is worried about. But most of the major production companies have long-standing relationships with the bigger agencies, and those agencies did not want to lose their commission.

Third, you can hide your pitch in a drawer and never show it to anybody. Now I know this is ridiculous, but sometimes I hear from people who are so paralyzed with fear at the thought of having their idea ripped off, that they never share it with anyone in the first place. But at the end of the day, sometimes you just have to take the risk, put it out there, and see what happens.

Good luck!

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65 Comments

Filed under Copyright

65 responses to “HOW DO I PROTECT MY IDEA FOR A REALITY TELEVISION SHOW?

  1. sueann carrasco

    Hi Larry
    Ok, so you go to a producer with your idea, how do you protect your idea from him/her?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      Try not to deal with unscrupulous producers. Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to give yourself absolute protection.

      Like

  2. Max Manganello

    Hello Larry,
    Thanks for the great article first of all.
    Can you tell me if the old method to send a copy to the production company and one copy to yourself is still up and running?

    Like

  3. lanre

    Hi Larry thansk for your article really insightful.. Here’s my question.. Does signing a confidentiality and non disclosure contract help?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      It depends. If they will sign one that you give them, great! That will give you greater protection. But they usually won’t sign. In fact, they usually want you to sign an agreement that says that they receive many similar pitches and that you won’t sue them if a show similar to yours is produced.

      Like

  4. Is it considered “yours” if you film some episodes on your own and put them on YouTube?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      What you film is yours but that doesn’t mean you own the underlying idea. For example, if you film episodes of a reality show about a fireman, it doesn’t mean that someone else can’t do their own show about a fireman.

      Like

      • ian

        hi I’d just like to ask something in relation to this question and your reply.
        I appreciate your reply but what if it is the firemen doing something very specific, for example firemen cooking food for politicians – dumb example but what i’m interested in is if the topic is VERY specific and the people doing it are a very specific set of people. Does that make any difference to the firemen analogy?

        Like

      • Larry Zerner

        It might, but it is so case specific I couldn’t really give an opinion without knowing all the facts.

        Like

  5. Roshelle Runkel

    Your information is a huge eye opener. So my question is ” how would I go about submitting my idea as a new reality TV show to the original creator of the show” ie…Simon Fuller?” Would I get any reward from him for giving him my idea directly perhaps, the idea part of a different version of his existing theme, rather meaning same show idea, but changing what talent source?

    Like

  6. Victoria

    I met a producer through friends, pitched her my idea and she made a professional demo reel with me as the lead in a “Job Show” type reality series. 12 months later, she says she hasn’t been able to sell the show but she kept me out of all pitches and won’t give me a copy of the reel…
    Do I have any recourse? I have my own contacts I’d like to pitch with the demo.

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      You probably don’t own the demo, but you can make a new one and go pitch that.

      Like

      • Victoria

        I’m sure I don’t own the demo but I don’t even have the ability to view it… I gave her my time as well as access to all my employees, my clients, private events, etc. …don’t I have any rights to my own work/images/idea?

        Like

  7. What happened to the old fashioned way of securing your script or story by registering with the Writers Guild of America and lodging it at the Library of Congress?
    John Bradley Esq.,

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      The issue is that reality show ideas are not specific enough to be covered by copyright, so registration with the Library of Congress will not help. Also, as I’ve discussed earlier, the WGA registration is worthless.

      Like

  8. TVGirl

    Hi Larry! Where do you post that the WGA registration is worthless? Does that mean registering my idea here: http://www.creatorsvault.com/ is worthless as well? And what about sending myself a sealed envelope post dated and keeping it that way? Thanks!

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      The post on the WGA being worthless is here. Creators Vault and sending sealed envelopes are worthless as well.
      .

      Like

      • TVGirl

        Thank you! So would you say posting your idea on a website like Creators Vault which shares your idea with many development companies is probably a bad idea too? Better to leave a paper trail and speak to individual development companies instead?

        Like

      • TVGirl

        I meant TVwritersvault.com 🙂

        Like

  9. Pman

    Great post! To bring up an earlier comment, if you flesh out the idea enough in a treatment whereby whatever format and idea is represented well in the writing, wouldn’t filing a copyright for the treatment afford the best possible protection, albiet not bullet proof?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      It is the best, the problem is that most reality show ideas are not original or fleshed out enough to qualify for copyright protection.

      Like

  10. Realist

    Isn’t this true Mr. Zerner, “While copyright in the United States automatically attaches upon the creation of an original work of authorship” saying that even without filing with the copyright office, once your work is written down and/or say filed with the WGA it is copyrighted automatic to said person by law without having to pay fees to the copyright bureau.

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      While it is true that copyright exists at the moment the work is created, registration is necessary to obtain statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Without any possibility of recovering these things, some cases are just not economically feasible so I would always recommend registering if you feel that you might be infringed.

      Like

  11. Austin

    What about the actual name/title of the TV Show? For Example would there have been a way to secure the name “Top Chef” while they were filming it so that no one could steal your name before the show aired?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      Titles of series can be registered with the Trademark Office. If you want to protect it before the show goes on the air, you can file an “intent-to-use” trademark application which will reserve the name until the show starts airing and the trademark can be finalized. However, I don’t recommend people trademarking titles, because the title of the show is almost always up to the Network and they will pick whatever title they want.

      Like

  12. Elke

    Hello, you mentioned hiring an Agent. Would it best to hire an agent or an entertainment attorney to assist me with all involved in starting a reality show? I have a great concept, but I have no idea where to start.

    Like

  13. Masa

    Hello, what about Documentary Film Interview concept? the idea is to film person, when he pretends to be the opposite sex than they are. Eg. such as Oprah pretends the situation that she is a man. And the interview is about what she would change in her life. But it is just as example. Is it enough to be covered by copyright?

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      I don’t think that is a copyrightable concept because it’s been done before. You can own your version of it, but you can’t own the idea in a way that would stop anyone else from doing the same thing.

      Like

      • Masa

        Thank you for your answer. What if nobody done it before? will it change situation?

        Like

      • Larry Zerner

        No. Bare ideas are not protectable by copyright. Before Jersey Shore, no one had done a reality show about obnoxious kids from Joisey. But while MTV owned Jersey Shore, anyone could find 7 other kids and film their own version of the idea.

        Like

      • Masa

        And what you mean by “You can own your version of it”? You mean that my version can be protected some how?

        Like

      • Larry Zerner

        You can’t own the idea. But after you film your version, you own that and no one could take your footage. But they could film their own version with a different person doing the same thing.

        Like

  14. Yev Mar

    Are there websites that I can check which shows/lists all of the current protected ideas? This way if I have an idea in mind, I will know if I need to abandon it or tweak it if someone is already doing it.

    Like

  15. K C

    Larry…how do I go about getting an agent to pitch my reality series ideas? Are there web sites available with listing for agents?

    Like

  16. DC

    Hi Larry, what if I’ve vaulted my one sheet with WGA but the one sheet is very specific and not just a one sentence log line. It identifies the so call on screen talent/host by his name, his company name, and the description for the show is very specific to the talents profession and what the show’s about. And let’s say, we’ve shot 3 months worth of footage and edited about 5 minutes of the series and he (the talent) decides to solicit another production company to produce the same program. Granted there are no signed contracts between me and the talent/host, just a mutual agreement and a gentlemen’s agreement. Is there any grounds for infringement and can I file a “Cease and Desist”? Thx

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      I can’t give you a absolute opinion without knowing more of the facts but based on what you wrote, it would appear that you at least have a claim for breach of contract against the talent/host. If this is something you really want to pursue, give me a call.

      Like

  17. TR

    Larry Zerner

    Thank you for the all the info you provided. Your answers help us avoid many problems and assumptions particularly when we are new to the game and money is scarce.

    TR

    Like

  18. Dan Troth

    Larry, a great big thank you for all your insight! I know who to call when my TV show gets ready to launch. Plus, you did very well in your Oscar predictions. Congrats on that as well.

    Like

  19. Thank you really helpful.

    Like

  20. Rick Romero

    Hi i was wondering how i would go about getting a show that would be more like an instructional/documentary style tv show?

    Like

  21. Larry Zerner

    It’s very difficult to protect an idea for an instructional show since 1) you can’t protect just “ideas”) and 2) most of these type shows have already been done. If you’re show is just “Let’s teach people to _____” (whether that be cook, garden, build a house, juggle or whatever else), there is just no way to protect that idea. You succeed not by having the idea, but by doing it better than everyone else. That’s why there are a lot of cooking shows, but only a few (e.g., Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse) that stand the test of time. It’s not about protecting the idea, it’s about protecting the execution of that idea.

    Like

  22. Rashunda Butler

    I have a idea for a new reality show and want to submit it to a producer. I need the help to protect myself. .

    Like

  23. Elana Tucker

    Can you refer me to an agent who might want to start a reality show,i know this one is a winner.
    Thank you
    Elana

    Like

  24. Nichelle McBride

    Ok. I’ve read what you have wrote, gave me a little insight, but i have a question. I pitched an idea to someone in reality tv via facebook inbox. The idea was thrown out, cause i was told they have the real world. This was back in january, but now i see they are pitching the same idea, name and all with the same concept o had suggested is there anything i an do.

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      If you sent someone an unsolicited pitch for a tv show to their facebook mailbox without them asking for it then there is probably nothing you can do but you might want to discuss this further with a lawyer.

      Like

  25. stephanie

    Hi Larry, so if I understand you correctly, the “writer’s vault” is a waste of time. The “writer’s guild” is a waste of time; neither one can offer the protection necessary to prevent someone from stealing not only your idea but the 3-5 pages written treatment. I think it is a good idea to work with well known producer but how do you know whether or not they will run away with your treatment. I have prospective stars that would be featured, if they accept the offer. I learned from another article that one should have an exclusivity deal with a major star in order to protect your idea, but how would you do that if you cannot show them first that you have production etc. I believe as others that my show is very viable and will continue for several seasons. It is just daunting to get it pass what appears to be vultures swarming around your wounded body :/
    ~vulnerable

    Like

    • Larry Zerner

      Stephanie,

      If you can get a star to sign an exclusivity deal with you that’s a good start. It is daunting sometimes to put your idea out there but at the end of the day, you just have to go with your gut and trust someone. The worst thing you can do is be so afraid that the idea will get stolen that you never tell anyone.

      Like

  26. stephanie

    Thank you for your reply. You offered your assistance for hire on a previous post. What type of assistance can you provide and what would be the fee for your services?

    Like

  27. Larry Zerner

    If you’d like to speak further about using my services, please give me a call at 310-773-3623

    Like

  28. Kevin Duffy

    I have an idea for a spoof reality tv show that I know would be really funny and I dont care about making an income off of it. I just have a different concept and want it to be protected under my name. Since this one isn’t about money and I’ll mainly be doing it for YouTube, could I just register the name then?

    Like

  29. Ck

    The article answers most of my questions Larry and I thank you for that! As for pitching a show do you get paid for your idea and a percentage of the commercial sales? What multiple ways could you get paid?

    Like

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