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Sony Television Prepares for Legal Battle Over 'Shark Tank' Tour

Did Sony Pictures Television tortiously interfere with a live tour of business personalities? Or did a Florida lawyer infringe on the show's intellectual property?

Shark Tank Cast Members - H 2014
ABC/ADAM TAYLOR
"Shark Tank"

On ABC's hit reality show, Shark Tank, there's often discussion between the investor "sharks" and the pitching entrepreneurs over the ability for a business idea to be protected. Now, in a case of life imitating television, a Florida courtroom is primed to become the scene of a Shark Tank episode that will never air.

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The dispute involves a personal injury attorney in Boca Raton, Fla. named Bobbie Celler who had the bright idea of marketing his firm through a speaking tour of personalities known for their business success. And so Celler contracted Shark Tank personalities Daymond John, Barbara Corcoran, Robert Herjavec and seasons one and two investor Kevin Harrington to do a live tour in November 2013, under the banner "Shark Tour and Entrepreneur Expo."

The tour never happened.

The sharks, allegedly under pressure from series producer Sony Pictures Television, backed out. That brought a lawsuit and countersuit in Florida federal court. On Monday, the two sides delivered pretrial statements framing the case. (Read here in full.)

According to Celler, the plaintiff, Sony tortiously interfered with its business relationships by pressuring the "sharks" to bow out.

STORY: ABC to Test 'Shark Tank' on Thursdays With Special Airing

According to Sony, the defendant, the lawsuit was preemptively filed so as to head off claims of trademark and trade dress infringement. The studio asserts that it has spent millions developing the show and that Celler made "intentional efforts to hijack [its] well-known brand." Further, Sony says it has participated in discussions with ABC and the Sharks about doing an official live Shark Tank tour -- "something Plaintiffs' efforts attempted to derail, dilute, or otherwise capture."

Sony defends the tortious interference claim by saying that its communications with the sharks are "privileged" due to its connection with its protection of business and property interests. Sony is asserting various counterclaims related to alleged intellectual property theft.

As a result of these counterclaims, there will be plenty of fussing in court over what it is Sony really owns, what intellectual property is enforceable and whether the Shark Tank marks and logo is distinctive, non-functional and has acquired secondary meaning among consumers. Celler contends that some of the IP hasn't been properly registered at the Trademark Office and also argues there's no likelihood of consumer confusion. Plus, he says that a "Shark Tour" is merely descriptive.

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Then, there's the issue of money.

From the court documents, it appears as though Celler will attempt to make Sony prove its damages, which could raise discussions about the profitability of the highly rated series. And on Celler's side, he's claimed $50 million in damages in "anticipated revenue" from the tour, leading Sony to challenge the theory of "lost profits" as a dubious one, especially from a personal injury lawyer with no prior experience promoting live exposition events.

Although Celler's "Shark Tour" never happened, the trial could feature testimony from John, Herjavec, Corcoran and Harrington as they are on the parties' proposed list of witnesses. Mark Cuban and Kevin O'Leary, Shark Tank's other stars, are not involved in any of this. The trial is currently scheduled to begin on April 14, although with various motions pending about what testimony will be heard, a delay is possible. The parties anticipate about four or five days of trial.

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