A New Precedent For Hollywood Contract Law

Back in August, I asked what would happen if the Supreme Court decided to take a case in which the plaintiffs argued that NBCUniversal stole their idea for Ghost Hunters and turned around and made it themselves. At the time, IP lawyer Michael Salerno wrote that:

It will be interesting to see if the SCOTUS takes the case simply to see whether they consider this a copyright or contract case. If the former, unless NBC took actual characters or specific written lines from the writers, NBC will win as ideas aren’t copyrightable. In fact, the only way these writers win (again, if NBC didn’t take specific characters or actual dialogue) is on a contract claim. The Court can’t allow for ideas to be copyrightable or a number of writers will just submit any number of rather generic scripts and then sue the pants off of networks that develop similar shows. Can you imagine a writer being able to have a copyright in an idea like “six friends live in New York and have their love lives intertwine”? There goes just about every 30-minute sitcom ever. If the writers win on a contract basis (which is MUCH more likely), studios will just create more specific contracts that state any screenplay submitted is either a) a work for hire whose copyright resides in the studio, or b) that the network reserves the right to develop a series based on the idea within the script without remuneration for the writers. Tough terms, to be sure, but that is what will likely happen.

The Supreme Court’s decided to let a lower court’s ruling that NBCU breached a contract when it rejected an idea for a paranormal detective show presented to the company several times over a period of seven years, then didn’t pay them when the company produced a similar show. In Hollywood Reporter, Eriq Gardner reports that some lawyers think the decision might make companies tetchy about taking pitches they haven’t directly solicited for fear that submissions are just lawsuit shopping. It would be unfortunate if an effort to protect folks who don’t have much clout in Hollywood from getting their ideas stolen prevented new faces, or people with daring ideas, from getting in the door to pitch meetings at all.