Jury to Decide Whether 'So You Think You Can Dance' Was Stolen From Dance Instructor

After more than six years, John Cassese has finally been given the go-ahead to bring arguments to a jury that his WGA-registered concept on "So You Think You Can Dance" was used without credit or payment.
"So You Think You Can Dance"

The Fox reality show, So You Think You Can Dance, has been going strong for eight seasons ever since it premiered as the #1 show on television in the summer of 2005. Meanwhile, for as long as the show has been on television, a celebrity dance instructor named John Cassese and his fellow partners have been fighting in court to prove that series producers, 19 Entertainment and Dick Clark Productions, stole their concept for a televised dance competition.

Hollywood production studios get sued all the time for misappropriating ideas, and most of these lawsuits never go beyond summary judgement dismissal. Not this time. On Thursday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge indicated at a hearing that he's going to send the case to a jury.

Getting the case to a jury is an extraordinary achievement alone for Cassese and his lawyers. This case has been going on for more than six long years and faced failure on numerous occasions. But amazingly, after being dismissed twice, it's been revived by appellate courts and along the way, offered a discussion of the role that agents play in the ideas-submission process.

Cassese, who calls himself the "Dance Doctor," alleges that in May, 2003, he and his writing partners registered a concept with the Writers Guild of America entitled "So You Think You Can Dance."

The registered concept described a 60-minute television show featuring dancers from various cities around the nation, recruited to compete in an elimination-style contest with ultimate culmination in Los Angeles. The contestants were to be challenged by various means, including pairing with complete strangers and being forced to master sometimes unfamiliar dance styles. The concept also describes a few features of the show, including live audiences and elaborate costumes.

Sound like a familiar show?

After the concept was registered, the plaintiffs hired Martin Erlichman to be their agent and shop the concept around, including to the Creative Artists Agency who might bring it to one of their big-time TV show producing clients.

Erlichamn submitted the idea to CAA in September, 2003.

Two years later, So You Think You Can Dance debuted on television, causing Cassese in 2006 to sue Fox Broadcasting Company, 19, DCP, and Erlichman for breach of contract, unfair competition, and other claims.

The initial lawsuit didn't go very far.

First, a judge dismissed all the defendants except for Erlichman from the case. (The judge allowed the plaintiffs to pursue claims of breach of fiduciary duty and accounting against Erlichman. The claims were later withdrawn.)

On appeal, a California appellate court affirmed the decision, but said the trial court should have given the plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their complaint, which they soon did with more details.

In the new amended complaint, it was alleged that CAA had accepted the submission for review with the awareness that "it is not the custom and practice within the entertainment industry for someone to submit WGA registered material to an agency without an understanding that he or she will be compensated in the event the material is produced."

Cassese added that CAA agents "entered into an implied-in fact contract" with the plaintiffs, and that those agents subsequently disclosed their Dance treatment to 19 Entertainment and DCP in formal pitch meetings that took place in the offices of Fox.

A judge again dismissed the lawsuit, and again the case was appealed.

This time, Cassese found more success.

In a decision in August 2010, a California appeals court found that the plaintiffs had cured the defects in their initial complaint by showing how CAA was representing 19 Entertainment and DCP and that the agency's knowledge of the conditions under which the Dance treatment was tendered became imputed to the agent's principal, meaning the show's producers. (However, the appeals court dismissed Fox from the lawsuit because CAA wasn't representing them.)

So the case went back to a trial court, where the defendants for a third time tried to dismiss the last remaining claim of breach of implied contract.

This time, 19 and DCP argued that there was no evidence that CAA had accepted the treatment or that Erlichman even sent over the treatment. They contended that there wasn't any evidence that CAA had "requisite authority" to enter into any deal and pointed to evidence that the plaintiffs were merely seeking to hire CAA as their own agents. Finally, they disputed similarity between Cassese's treatment for "So You Think You Can Dance" and the Fox show that was executive produced by Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller.

(Ironically, Fuller is currently involved in a lawsuit claiming that agreements were broken whereby he would have gotten paid for The X Factor on Fox.) 

That led to a hearing on Thursday, at which Los Angeles Superior Court judge James Dunn decided that sufficient evidence had been presented to make this dispute ripe for a jury to decide.

Now, at the same time Hollywood studios attempt to get the Supreme Court to weigh in on whether federal copyright law usurps implied contract claims, a jury trial will be held to determine whether CAA brought a celebrity dance instructor's submitted idea for a dance competition show to 19 and DCP. If so, the defendants could be facing significant liability for not paying for use of the concept.

A final status conference is set for November 7 and a trial is expected commence soon thereafter. The 6+ year litigation dance continues...

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner