The Frivolous Copyright Claim CBS Brought against ABC Claiming “Glass House” Infringes “Big Brother.”

This morning, CBS filed a lawsuit against ABC and Disney claiming that their new show Glass House was a rip-off of Big Brother. The complaint (which can be found here) alleges that at least 19 former Big Brother staffers are working on glass house and includes causes of action for, among other things, trade secret misappropriation, unfair competition, breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiracy.  Now, I’m no expert in trade secret law, so I’m not a comment on that part of the complaint. But as a copyright lawyer, I feel the allegation of copyright infringement is completely ridiculous.

In the complaint, CBS lists the following elements which it alleges are protectable and were ripped off by ABC.

1. Big Brother is a reality television series in which a group of people live together in a large house, isolated from the outside world. The contestants are filmed continuously.

2. Each cycle of the series begins with between 12 and 14 contestants (referred to as houseguests). Over the course of three months, contestants survive periodic evictions. The last contestant standing wins.

3. Evictions occur approximately once per week. The contestant designated the “head of household” nominates a number of fellow contestants whom he or she wishes to see evicted from the house. The contestants then vote to evict each other, and the nominated contestant with the most votes is evicted (unless the contestant uses a “power of veto,” where a contestant can save the nominee, causing the head of household to name a replacement nominee).

4. After the votes are tallied, the quote you pick the unquote leaves the house and is interviewed live, usually in front of a studio audience.

5. The weekly tasks and competitions, which are set by Big Brother, are a major part of the contest. The tasks are designed to test their teamwork abilities and community spirit. Contestants who lose the tasks and competitions are often nominated to be evicted from the house.

6. Throughout the cycle, the contestants are filmed in the “Diary/Confession Room, where they individually convey their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations, and reveal their nominees for eviction.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list, it reads almost exactly like a description of the show Survivor. Other than the fact that this takes place in a house and not on an island, and that the head of household nominates certain contestants to be evicted, everything listed can be found as part of the Survivor television program.  The rules of Big Brother are simply not specific enough, nor are they detailed enough, to justify a claim of copyright infringement, when someone puts on a similar show.

We will see how this plays out, but if I could place a bet on the outcome, I would bet a lot of money on ABC. Let’s see what happens.

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