'Reality formats better protected than you think'

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CANNES -- There was a rare bit of good news Monday for international format producers used to getting their hit shows copied, knocked off or straight-out stolen by shady broadcasters and production companies worldwide.

In a packed MIPCOM workshop, leading U.K. media rights lawyer Jonathan Coad told the audience that despite the fact that "no country anywhere in the world" expressly protects format rights, a growing number of legal cases is beginning to establish a framework for copyright protection of such shows as "American Idol," "Survivor" and "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here."

Citing recent cases, such as Parsons/Castaway Prods. v. Granada/ITV and Endemol v. TVSBT of Brazil in 2003, Coad argued that international courts slowly are recognizing that nonscripted formats have rights too.

"Reality formats are better protected than you think," he said.

Unlike previous court decisions, Coad argued that recent cases have taken as a given that nonscripted formats could be copyrighted. Earlier suits dismissed that idea altogether, arguing that reality and show formats are mere "ideas" and not a unique creative product such as a scripted film, song or sitcom.

Copyright protection for reality and show formats is no small matter. The "Idol" format alone has been valued at up to $2.5 billion. While international copycat versions of such hit drama series as "CSI" and "Grey's Anatomy" are an occasional nuisance to rights-holders, the international formats business is a Wild West free-for-all in which crooked producers steal with abandon.

"I've seen producers stand in front of booths and directly film footage from trailers (to copy later)," Coad said.

Despite the progress seen in recent court decisions, Coad argued that format producers wouldn't be able to truly protect their investments until formats are written into copyright law.
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