When Your Reality Show Idea or Hollywood Movie Concept May Be Protectable

Dana's picture

The Ninth Circuit has recently made a decision that is likely to shake up how Hollywood deals with pitches.  Typically mere 'ideas' aren't protectable under copyright law.  Thus, taking a general idea for a reality show and pitching that in Hollywood has always had its risks.  In a recent case, the outcome was in favor of the idea person.  Montz v. Pilgrim Films & Television, Inc. 649 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2011).  In Montz, the Hollywood bad guys (aka, the studio execs) are alleged to have taken an idea from Larry Montz and Daena Smoller.  Montz and Smoller claimed that they pitched an idea for a television show to NBC Universal and the Sci-Fi Channel (together with other entities, the “defendants”), regarding a team of paranormal investigators that look into claims of paranormal activity.  


Later, when Ghost Hunters appeared on the SyFy Channel (new name), they sued.  The issue before the Ninth Court was whether the plaintiffs' state court claims for breach of contract and breach of confidence, were pre-empted by federal copyright law.  Generally, if there is a copyright involved, the state law claims are pre-empted and the case gets heard under federal law and Montz and Smoller would be out of luck.  However, the court found that copyright did not pre-empt because the idea was not yet in a condition to be copyrightable.  Thus, they ended up with protection for NOT having copyrights.  If they had copyrightability in the work, they would have been sunk.  But, because they had only unprotectable ideas, they were able to hold up their claims for breach of contract and breach of confidence under state court rules.  It seems that pitch meetings in the Ninth Circuit (which includes Hollywood) may create implied contracts or confidential relationships that the networks, studios, and production companies will have to honor.