Israel's Legal War: Can Reality TV Shows Be Copyrighted?

Endemol is suing an Israeli TV producer for infringing the format on "Big Brother." The Israelis are fighting back, saying that "Big Brother" borrowed its own format from "The Real World" and there's little originality in the reality TV genre.
"Big Brother"

Reality television is as popular as ever throughout the world.

So too are allegations of reality-show plagiarism. It's an epidemic so rampant that even the United Nations has gotten involved in offering to resolve disputes between a TV producer in one nation and another TV producer in another nation.

But not everyone around the world wants to entrust international mediators with figuring out what's fair and who's ripping off whom. Not in Israel, anyway. And so, Endemol, the Netherlands-based reality show production giant behind Big Brother, is currently involved in a significant case with the Israeli producers of an alleged "copycat" show entitled 24/7: The Next Generation, featuring strangers living together. Recently, the litigation in Israel has turned to the reality of protecting reality.

Endemol filed the lawsuit last December, claiming about $1 million in damages and requesting an injunction to shut down the Israeli show.

 "Watching The Next Generation leaves an obvious impression of a conscious and blatant lifting of the Big Brother format – not to mention a deliberate and wrongful attempt on the part of the defendants to unlawfully rip-off Big Brother’s identity,” said Endemol in its complaint.

Since then, Israel’s Channel 10 and Abbot Reif Hameiri, the production company behind the "copycat" show, have responded forcefully to the claims.

The defendants reel off a litany of other reality shows including The Bachelor, Beauty and the Geek and Survivor, and wonder how Endemol can claim to have originated the concept of strangers being forced together into dramatic situations and love.

"It's REALITY," said the defendants in their response (which we've liberally translated from Hebrew). "Whose nature is not constant throughout the season, but runs in accordance with the progress of plot developments and feedback from viewers."

Channel 10 also ridicules Endemol's claims by pointing to MTV's breakthrough reality show, The Real World.

"The Real World is broadcast around the world and is in its 26th season," say the defendants. "It's one of the world's oldest reality TV shows and was a predecessor to Big Brother. It features many of the same elements: The lives of participants. Living in a condominium for several months. Shown relationships between participants. Filmed with multiple cameras for 24 hours a day. Filmed confessions."

The defendants say that while Endemol might be claiming 24/7 is an unlawful derivative of Big Brother, derivatives underpin the existence of reality television in the first place. One can't claim ownership over this type of reality television format, they say, without laying stake to the interactions among people in real life that serve as fodder for reality TV cameras.

Local lawyers in Israel say they are watching the case closely.

 "This lawsuit could set a precedent in Israeli copyright laws concerning television formats and could reveal behind-the-scenes industry secrets," writes Tel Aviv-based attorney Ariel Dubinsky. "Titleholders of this television format have succeeded in developing a formula that has been effective in convincing potential buyers that the format is protected by copyright, even though this issue is not so cut-and-dried."

The last significant international dispute on the reality TV front was a case where Endemol was on the other side -- a defendant in a lawsuit brought by a Japanese broadcaster over ABC's Wipeout.

In that case, Endemol pointed out TV's long history of obstacle-course competitions and argued that the Japanese plaintiff "remarkably claims copyright protection in obstacles and obstacle concepts ubiquitous in the public domain, such as 'rope swings,' 'mechanical bulls' and 'pole vaults.'"

On the verge of a Wipeout trial, the parties settled in late November. Shortly thereafter, Endemol decided to get tough on an alleged plagiarist of Big Brother.


Twitter: @eriqgardner