Can TV formats be protected by copyright as artistic works?
Copyright Banner - Universal Motion Pictures Ltd v Endemol Shine Group Ltd & others  EWHC 2600
Banner Universal Motion Pictures Ltd (BUMP) brought an action for copyright infringement which it claimed subsisted in the TV format for its game show “Minute Winner’.
BUMP alleged that, after pitching the concept for “Minute Winner” to one of the Defendants (the Swedish TV production company, Friday TV) in 2005, Friday TV (along with the other Defendants) went on to copy the format of “Minute Winner” by producing a similar gameshow called “Minute to Win It”. “Minute to Win It” has been broadcast in over 70 countries worldwide, including the US and UK.
The concept for “Minute Winner” involved members of the public being given exactly one minute to try and win a prize. The show’s format was set out in a short document (the Minute Winner Document) which included a short summary, the filming locations, and the prizes that could be won. BUMP claimed that copyright subsisted in the Minute Winner Document as an artistic work and that the Defendants had infringed this copyright by producing “Minute to Win It”.
The court found that copyright could subsist in a TV format, but that in this case it did not.
Snowden J held that: “it is at least arguable, as a matter of concept, that the format of a television game show or quiz show can be the subject of copyright protection as a dramatic work”. This is despite the fact that, due to their nature, such shows contain elements of spontaneity and events typically change from episode to episode.
Snowden J also went on to consider the minimum requirements that must be met in order for copyright to subsist in a TV format as an artistic work:
there must be a number of clearly identified features which, taken together, distinguish the TV show from others of a similar type, and
those distinguishing features must be connected with each other in a coherent framework, which can be repeatedly applied so as to enable the show to be reproduced in a recognisable form.
However, Snowden J found that copyright did not subsist in BUMP’s Minute Winner Document as it “did not identify or prescribe anything resembling a coherent framework or structure which could be relied upon to reproduce a distinctive game show in a recognisable form”. Snowden J highlighted that the performance of a task against the clock to win a prize was a common feature of game shows.
The Minute Winner Document was also vague on key pieces of information, such as the type of one minute tasks, who the contestants should be, and the length of the programme. Snowden J also noted that even if BUMP could show copyright subsisted in its Minute Winner Document, its format was “different in every material respect” from that used in Minute to Win It.
Why is this important?
This decision confirms that TV formats can be protected under English copyright law. To attract copyright protection as an artistic work, TV formats must contain distinctive features and these must be joined together in a coherent framework enabling the show to be reproduced in a recognisable form.
Any practical tips?
Production companies who want to protect their formats should document as much information as they can about the format, with sufficient detail to distinguish it from previous formats and to allow it to be repeated in a recognisable form.