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Los Angeles, CA |

I have been in meetings all last week pitching a reality show concept to production companies. I manage an actor who is well known for a movie about his life that opens nationwide this week. In order to capitalize on his sudden fame, his agent has gotten him a series of meetings w/reality show, development companies. I attend these meetings w/him. One of the most famous companies that develops top name shows; is very interested in our idea but 1) they want to cut this actor pretty much OUT of the picture and 2) yet still want this actor and I to present them with spec scripts for 12 episodes! They are telling my clients agent that they can use him in "some capacity" but not as the shows host. How do I know that after we put this whole concept together they just don't steal it from us

The agent seems to think we should just give this production company anything that ask for. However, this agent has his other talent working on a variety of shows this company already produces so he might have ulterior motives for wanting to keep this company happy. My client and I are floundering a bit and don't want to create an entire show for a company that they then plug a different actor into the lead role. My client is, rightfully, saying that this show idea belongs to him.

Attorney Answers 5

  1. You need much more hands-on skilled legal assistance than you can expect to generate from an anonymous post here.

    No legal advice here. READ THIS BEFORE you contact me! My responses to questions on Avvo are never intended as legal advice and must not be relied upon as if they were legal advice. I give legal advice ONLY in the course of a formal attorney-client relationship. Exchange of information through Avvo's Questions forum does not establish an attorney-client relationship with me. That relationship is established only by joint execution of a written agreement for legal services. My law firm does not provide free consultations. Please do not call or write to me with a “few questions” that require me to analyze the specific facts of your history and your license application and prescribe for you how to get a State license. Send me an email to schedule a paid Consultation for that kind of information, direction, and assistance. My law firm presently accepts cases involving State and federal licenses and permits; discipline against State and federal licenses; and disciplinary and academic challenges to universities, colleges, boarding schools, and private schools. We take cases of wrongful termination or employment discrimination only if the claims involve peace officers, universities or colleges.

  2. You need to retain an entertainment attorney sooner as opposed to later. You will need that attorney to first review whether your idea has enough originality and expression to be eligible for copyright, because ideas alone are not sufficient for protection. However, if companies are interested, then it is probable that you have some materials that are eligible for copyright protection.

    If the expression of your ideas is protectable, then your client should register the content with the United States Copyright Office. Once the content is registered, include the copyright registration number and a copyright notice in all references and disclosures of the content to third parties.

    As for protecting yourself in connection with this famous company, you should get any promises in writing. If the production company is not really interested in your client as an actor, but is interested in your show pitch and ideas, then the company essentially wants your client on the creative/writing/producing side of things. Therefore, at a minimum, you need a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before you pitch these ideas. If the production company really likes your content and does not want to risk losing the content to others, the production company may present some type of option-purchase agreement where the production company pays a specified fee for an option period while agreeing to pay an additional "purchase" fee if the production company later exercises the option to purchase the scripts and rights.

    The foregoing response is provided for general informational purposes only and is not a solicitation for business. Please retain an attorney if you need specific legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established until both you and me agree to establish one, and neither transmission of information herein, nor the receipt of such information, constitutes an agreement to establish an attorney-client relationship.

  3. You disclosed an idea to someone. The rule is that unless the person agreed, before you disclosed the idea to him, that he would not use the idea without compensating you, that person may freely use the idea -- even commercially. Without that prior agreement the idea-recipient has no duty to keep that idea to himself.

    In your situation, I think it highly likely that it's way too late for you to "protect a reality show concept" that you've already disclosed to numerous people and companies.

    But perhaps not. There's a well-developed body of law in California called "idea submission law." In short, IF an idea is pitched to someone under circumstances where both the idea-giver and idea-recipient understand that the disclosure of the idea is conditioned upon the idea-giver being compensated if the idea is used, then those parties have created an implied-in-fact contract. Under those circumstances, the idea-recipient cannot use the idea without compensating the idea-giver. The stickler is that it's a highly factual, and always debatable, question whether the idea-recipient understood that he could not use the idea without compensating the idea-giver. People chat all the time without any mutual agreement obligating one to pay the other if a disclosed idea is acted upon. Say, talking about an idea for a TV show. You can read a court decision that explains this law [linked-to below].

    So ... in your situation you need to sit down with an entertainment attorney who will compile the facts to determine what rights, if any, you and your client still have in the TV show idea.

    And, next time, before the meeting submit a short script on which you've affixed a proper copyright notice and the phrase "Confidential - Do Not Reproduce," register the copyright, and persuade those to whom you disclose your idea to sign an "Idea Submission Deal Sheet" [or some other appropriately named document]. If they won't sign -- which is likely -- then in your email or other correspondence make sure you make plain that the idea is being submitted confidentially and that it cannot be used without compensation.

    The above is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.

  4. This question of "concept exclusivity" is one of the most frustrating areas in entertainment law. There are two things that you need to know: (1) You cannot own a mere "idea" under the Copyright Act. The reason for this is that ownership means exclusive rights (such as to your home or car, where you don't ever have to let anyone else use them if you don't want to), and the law doesn't want someone to be able to own, say, the idea of "boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy regains girl"; BUT you CAN own exclusive rights in the "expression" of your idea; so the more you write the more you can protect, particularly parts that might be considered "novel"; and (2) the California courts, in particular, have created a doctrine called "implied-in-fact" contracts, which is really the only way that you can protect yourself from being ripped off in the setting you describe. To qualify for potential protection under this concept (which will also apply in most places outside of California), you must state in writing that you and your actor expect to be compensated appropriately and that your actor expects to be on-screen, playing himself, in the event your show-concept is picked up. The way the legal doctrine works is that if the network DOES pick up your show, they are deemed to have accepted the condition that you and your actor have placed on the deal. That's really the only way to protect yourself. If you would like to discuss this further, contact us through Best of luck.

  5. You could have them sign a Unilateral NonDisclosure Agreement. Not always effective, but it's better than nothing.

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