Friday, June 18, 2004

More on copywrong

Yesterday brought news of two more aggrieved parties who believe that their copyright has been breached, stolen, or otherwise abused.

First, a report from Los Angeles. Diana Locke has written two books on cosmetic surgery. Some time ago, she thought up an idea for a TV show, focusing on the emotional and psychological aspects of plastic surgery. She 'pitched' this show (as they say) to a producer friend in August 2001. He is turn discussed it with his agent. An attempt was then made to sell the idea to a cable network, but the attempt failed and everyone abandoned the project.

Then -- goodness me, what a surprise -- the agent who had been involved sold a very similar idea to ABC, who turned it into a show called 'Extreme Makeover'.

And now Ms Locke is suing everyone in sight, claiming breach of confidence, conspiracy, and unjust enrichment. She seeks damages of $10 million. At least.

Yeah, well, good luck to everyone is all I can say. The only people likely to benefit, in my estimation, are the lawyers.

The case will presumably be tried under Californian law, and who knows what peculiarities are embedded there. In English law, however, it is mighty difficult to protect an 'idea'. In fact there is no copyright in 'ideas' unless they are developed into a detailed draft of a book or TV programme.

In his book Publishing Law, Hugh Jones has this to say. 'It is not at all easy to protect original ideas as such.... Good ideas have a habit of re-appearing later in different forms, and rejected authors might easily suspect that their ideas have simply been stolen.... There is probably not a lot that can be done about this.'

It is likely that Diana Locke's case will hinge on the extent to which the idea was 'developed', and the extent to which discussions of it were recognised as confidential by the parties involved. I would not personally bet any money on Ms Locke coming out a winner, but perhaps an insurance company may pay her a little money to shut up and go away -- though without admitting any liability, of course.

Meanwhile the Publishers Lunch newsletter reported a case heard in Germany, where a Harvard University professor is claiming that the writer and director of the movie The Day After Tomorrow plagiarised his book. Ubaldo DiBenedetto (77) alleges that Roland Emmerich's film stole parts of his 1993 novel Polar Day 9, which he had written under the pseudonym Kyle Donner. Amazing what these Harvard men get up to in their spare time, isn't it?

Once again, I would not bet money on the author's chances of proving his case. The judge has already said that, although there are similarities between book and film, they do not appear to amount to plagiarism. A ruling is expected on 7 July.

These two cases constitute yet further evidence -- not that any is needed -- that being a writer is a pretty thankless business, and one, furthermore, which is likely to lead to anger, bitterness, and frustration.

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