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8 MOS

Discovery Can't Knock Out Oprah Winfrey Network Theft Lawsuit

A Florida judge will allow a woman to allege her pitch on "experiential programming" was taken without permission and compensation.

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Susan Kasi, whose Sunset Concepts company, sued Discovery Communications in June with a seemingly wild allegation, is being allowed to move forward with her lawsuit.

The plaintiff says that in 2003, she developed an idea for "Care Free TV" -- a network that would offer therapeutic programming by broadcasting guided imagery of inspiring places, meditation, music, art and philosophy -- and pitched it to Discovery.

Discovery eventually passed on her idea, but Kasi points to a "string of coincidences" relating to the Oprah Winfrey Network, which debuted in 2011 and is jointly operated by Discovery and Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions. Among them was OWN's habit of promoting conscious living through programming like "Super Soul Sunday" and "Good News Breaks."

The lawsuit was attacked by Discovery's lawyers as an attempt to own ideas "which are, on their face, either generic or premised on Oprah Winfrey's brand," but U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro in Florida ruled on Tuesday that there's enough in the allegations to deny Discovery's motion to dismiss.

Kasi will go forward on claims that Discovery breached a contract and misappropriated ideas.

An essential part of her early success was the fact that she alleged the existence of a "Confidentiality Agreement" between her company and Discovery. When Kasi was pitching her "Care Free TV" idea, she says she met with an executive vice president at Discovery responsible for developing new media, and this agreement allowed her to share ideas such as a proposed network catchphrase, "We take you there."

Nevertheless, in its attemmpt to get the judge to reject the lawsuit, Discovery said that the idea of a TV network that mixed "art" and "philosophy" was "either so generic as to be public domain or are premised... in large part on pre-existing ideas and content created by Oprah Winfrey’s multi-media platforms."

Judge Ungaro's response?

In a ruling on Tuesday, she writes, "While the Court concurs with Defendant that in some respects the descriptions of the programming concepts are vague and general, the Complaint contains sufficient factual content with respect to the terms of the contract, the programming concepts that she alleges were misappropriated and the timeliness of her breach of contract claim to satisfy the requirements of... pleading breach of contract and misappropriation of ideas."

The judge, though, dismisses Sunset Concepts' claim of breaching the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

This is still early in the litigation.

Among Discovery's other arguments in the case is that the confidentiality agreement was merely executed to evaluate her idea, and that an "obligation of non-disclosure" terminated once the information became known to the public through no fault of Discovery or 12 months after the initial disclosure. Discovery also asserts that she waited too long to bring her lawsuit since Discovery announced its joint venture with Oprah in 2008.

Nevertheless, Discovery will have to continue fighting.

“When we filed this case, Discovery said it was completely without merit," says Jonathan Pollard, the attorney representing the plaintiff. "Well I beg to differ.  I think our case is a good one and I think it’s pretty straight-forward.  My client pitched ideas to Discovery and Discovery took those ideas and used them without her permission and in violation of the contract.  I know it will be a long fight, but at the end of the day, I trust a jury to sort all of this out.”

Discovery had no comment.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner