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'Ghost Hunters' Producer on Eight-Year Legal War: 'Finally, Someone Said, "Enough"'

Craig Piligian and Syfy win a nasty case in the growing area of reality TV idea theft.

Ghost Hunter Illustration - S 2014
Illustration by: Evan Hughes

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For eight years, Craig Piligian held his tongue. Like many top reality TV producers, he had been sued over allegations that his production company, Pilgrim Films & Television, stole the idea behind a hit show, in this case Syfy's Ghost Hunters. In fact, when the lawsuit was filed by parapsychologist Larry Montz and publicist Daena Smoller in 2006, Piligian thought it was a joke. "Why am I in this lawsuit?" he remembers asking himself. "They may have pitched something to NBC, but I never met them."

Now Piligian, who has produced such reality hits as American Chopper and Dirty Jobs, is speaking out about his vindication in the suit. On April 1, California appeals court judge Nora Margaret Manella ruled in favor of Syfy parent NBCUniversal. The ruling followed a decision this year dismissing Piligian himself and pointing to a lack of communications between him and the plaintiffs. "Finally, someone said, 'Enough,' " says Piligian. (Lawyers for Montz and Smoller didn't respond to requests for comment on whether they will appeal.)

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The Ghost Hunters case was unusually rancorous, even by Hollywood litigation standards. At one point, a federal appeals court ruled that if Montz and Smoller pitched materials with an "implied promise" of a partnership to develop a show about a team of paranormal investigators, the case should move forward. That decision prompted NBCU, fearful of igniting a firestorm of lawsuits from people who unsuccessfully pitch reality shows, to attempt to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in. (It declined.) The case also included bizarre moments; during Piligian's deposition, he was asked whether NBCU Cable chairman Bonnie Hammer is herself a ghost hunter.

Throughout the case, Piligian maintained he came to the Ghost Hunters idea a decade ago after a colleague handed him an article in The New York Times about two Rhode Island plumbers who were paranormal investigators in their spare time. Back then, his company had no lawyers. Now, largely as a result of this case, he has five on staff. Additionally, Pilgrim Films & Television has built in-house development and casting departments that are under strict orders to document every part of the creative process.

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Piligian isn't alone, of course. In a genre as young, free-flowing and, frankly, as derivative as reality TV, shows as diverse as Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance and Steven Seagal: Lawman have faced idea theft lawsuits. And Piligian believes that in the end, these suits do harm to the creative community. "When cases like this happen, it really hurts the small producer because then we guard the doors," he says. "We make them sign waivers and rarely take submissions unless they are represented by big agencies. [Lawyers representing those who sue] say they are out to protect the small guys, but they actually end up hurting them."