In the wake of a similar decision in Italy last month, the UK High Court has confirmed that television formats may be protectable under copyright in the UK subject to certain criteria.

Television production companies have long struggled to protect their ideas. The format of a television show doesn’t easily fit into any of the copyright work categories – Literary, Dramatic, Musical, or Artistic – under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988. Instead, production companies have had to rely on a cobbled-together cocktail of legal protection to help prevent others from copying their formats. This includes trade marking relevant names, logos, characters, and catchphrases, and relying on strict contractual protections around exclusivity and non-compete clauses.

However, in the recent case of BUMP v Endemol Shine Group Limited & others, the High Court indicated that, in certain limited circumstances, TV formats could also be protected by copyright.

This case involved Banner Universal Motion Pictures (BUMP), owner of rights to the Minute Winner TV format, bringing an action against the defendants for alleged copying of Minute Winner in the production of their own show, Minute to Win It. BUMP claimed that they had met with the defendants in 2005 and discussed their idea for Minute Winner - which is filmed in a variety of locations and includes a one-minute game played by a random member of the public against a prize – details of which were set out in an overview document. Minute to Win It first aired in the US in 2010 and rights to it have subsequently been sold in over 70 countries worldwide. 

BUMP’s action claimed that the Minute Winner overview document was a dramatic work for the purposes of the Copyright Design and Patent Act 1998 and should, therefore, be protected by copyright.

In the High Court Mr Justice Snowden ruled that the following requirements needed to be met before copyright protection could be granted to TV formats:

• the format must be clear, detailed, specific, and contain a coherent recognisable framework

• the format must include specification regarding:

  • the place where the action is taken
  • the participants involved
  • the selection process
  • the source of the prizes
  • the catchphrases

• when the show should be aired

• the format should include a description of the type of one-minute tasks required to be performed.

Analysing the features of the two different game shows, the High Court held that there is no similarity between the formats besides a commonplace idea of playing against the clock for one minute. The Court, therefore, dismissed the case.

Although this action was ultimately unsuccessful, this decision shows that protecting copyright of the TV format may be possible in principle, however the threshold that must be satisfied is clearly a high one.

For more information, please contact Nick Lewis.

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