In a UK copyright case concerning TV game-show formats Robin Meakin v British Broadcasting Corporation and others  EWHC 2065 (Ch), Arnold J granted the Defendants summary judgment and provided an overview of the approach the court will take in relation to the protection of TV formats. Essentially, the question was whether there was derivation— assessed on the basis of any similarities with and access to Mr Meakin’s proposals—and whether there was reproduction of a substantial part. The court concluded that there was neither.
Robin Meakin alleged that the Defendants infringed his copyright in three short proposals for television game show formats that he submitted on separate occasions to the BBC, Celador and Zeal Television Ltd in November 2002, April 2003 and September 2003. Mr Meakin’s claim related in particular to a programme broadcast by the BBC between 4 April 2004 and June 2005 entitled Come and Have a Go … If You Think You Are Smart Enough (CHG).
Mr Meakin’s case was based essentially on claims that his proposals, in which subsisted literary and dramatic copyright, were the first to suggest that contestants at home and in the studio might use their telephones and/or other interactivity to build cumulative scores to win a prize in a live television quiz and that CHG, co-produced and transmitted by the BBC, was, in the words of the co-executive producer
…a fully interactive live quiz event which responds to the viewers’ frustrations at being unable to take part. It allows them for the first time the chance to play the same game at the same time for the same big cash prize.
The Defendants applied for summary judgment dismissing all of Mr Meakin’s claims.
Arnold J stated that in order to have a prospect of success in his copyright claim, Mr Meakin must have a real prospect of success on each of two issues: derivation and reproduction of a substantial part. The judge was prepared, for the purposes of this hearing, to proceed on the assumption that copyright subsisted in the three proposal documents as a literary work and/or as a dramatic work (although the latter was disputed by the Defendants) and that Mr Meakin owned these copyrights.
The judge noted that Mr Meakin had “a number of goes at identifying similarities between his three proposals and CHG and the website” such as that the majority of questions were “general knowledge questions based on logic and questions based on stills, films and music footage” and that “in the final the contestants were able to confer with family and friends.” Arnold J dismissed these alleged similarities and others like them as “very general similarities at a high level of abstraction”.
The judge acknowledged that it is no answer to a claim for copyright infringement to say that what has been copied is not unique to the claimant. Nevertheless, in considering whether there are similarities that support the inference of copying, the fact that the similarities only exist at a high level of generality and are shared by works that preceded the copyright works relied upon, was material. The judge also considered that, even taken cumulatively, the similarities were insufficient to give rise to an inference of copying.
On the question of access, the judge concurred with the Defendants that Mr Meakin’s case “amounts to a series of conspiracy theories”. For example, Mr Meakin argued that the fact that one of the individual Defendants was employed first by Celador and then by the BBC was too much of a coincidence. However, there was no evidence to suggest that this employee ever saw Mr Meakin’s proposals. The lack of evidence of access to the proposals by those who developed CHG at the relevant times reinforced the conclusion that Mr Meakin had no real prospect of establishing that CHG was derived from any of his proposals.
Arnold J accepted that it was not necessary for text to be copied in order for a claim for infringement of literary copyright to succeed. Even so, in his view, the similarities between his three proposals and CHG on which Mr Meakin relied, amounted to no more than general ideas at a fairly high level of abstraction and, moreover, commonplace ideas in the field of television game show formats. For these reasons and on the basis that there was no other compelling reason for trial, Arnold J granted summary judgment in favour of the Defendants on the claims of copyright infringement.
Mr Meakin also brought a breach of confidence claim in relation to two unrelated games and a television programme said to be developed by Celador. However, the judge said that it was difficult to follow what Mr Meakin was complaining about. Accordingly, the allegations had no real prospect of success and the Defendants were also entitled to summary judgment.
Without the case proceeding to full trial, we still await a reasoned UK court decision concerning the protection of dramatic copyright in TV formats. However, the case is instructive for broadcasters and production companies in demonstrating the importance of maintaining strict internal procedures for the acknowledgment and return of original or other non-digital materials submitted, to ensure as far as reasonably possible the appropriate confidentiality under which any proposal was submitted.