[Image by Michele Aquila]
Interesting email exchange a while ago between me and a new, pale and interesting writer type we’ve been working with on a scripted comedy series.
He and his – equally pale and interesting – writing partner have been working hard on a draft script for a pilot episode, plus working up – and out – the narrative arcs, character biogs etc. ahead of us taking a perfectly formed package to Commissioner Land.
Out of the blue, this email popped into my Inbox:
“Was talking to someone at a party last night who pitched a show to Channel 4, didn’t protect it in any way, and they took it and changed a bit, including the name, and released it.
I can’t remember which show it was now, but I will find out. It would be a recognisable one.”
He went on to say that if it was true, it would be surprising, a shame and, of course, worrying for him – or any new writer/creative – and asked whether they should consider ‘patenting’ / registering their work.
In our line of work we do get asked this kind of question – unsurprisingly and justifiably – from a fair number of people and we do try to address these concerns and our transparent and upfront approach – with Non-Disclosure Agreements – via our FAQs and <plug> our Starter Pack </plug>.
More Information please
But on this particular, slow news, easily distracted day I replied in greater detail than I perhaps would normally.
“Re the C4 plagiarism claim, then if they actually pitched it, in person – as opposed to a random unsolicited punt via letter/email – there is no way on this earth that C4 would have done that, seriously! And even if it was a punt via email, there’d be an email trail that this person could use in court, to prove the plagiarism. All very iffy, iffy you asky me! But I could be wrong.”
I asked him to get more information if he could and reiterated that there are plenty of disgruntled creatives out there with chips on shoulders and axes to grind, but there are also hundreds of indies and broadcasters paying their development teams to come up with ideas for TV shows, so the odds against similar ideas surfacing at similar times are not too sizeable. Monkeys, typewriters, Shakespeare, etc.
Couple of days later, and I got this message:
“As you were wondering, I thought I’d let you know that it was ‘Fresh Meat’. This guy claimed he wrote ‘Freshers’ and they did what they did.”
Fresh Meat as I’m sure you’re all aware is the new comedy series currently airing on Channel 4, written by the purveyors of Peep Show, the legendary Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and, as I understand it, a team of writers.
The Big I Am
Well, with that information and still no detail about how the idea was actually pitched, this bloke’s story seems even more sketchy. Let’s face it, a show about students, sharing a house/flat is so not the most original TV idea.
If the guy had developed an idea with the exact number of characters with the exact same flaws, personalities and traits, written scripts, episode synposes and then C4 nicked it, attached Bain and Armstrong to the project, tweaked the name and put it out, then he’d have cause to be just a leeeetle bit pissed off I’d say and he should be bussing a team of lawyers round to Horseferry Road as I write.
But no, I think this is a case of the bloke in question giving it the ‘Big I Am’ at the party, most likely fuelled by several pints of bitter[ness]. But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and accept he WAS working on a hilarious comedy called Freshers and HAD pitched the idea to Channel 4, then what might, MIGHT have happened, is that his idea, his script, even his personality, just failed to float the commissioner’s boat. Or, to paraphrase Roy Catchphrase Walker, “it’s good, but it’s not right.”
However, the overarching theme or premise of Freshers might have been of interest to them, so they MIGHT have gone to existing, established, high ratings delivering talent and said “Hey guys, we’d like a show about first year university students – what can you come up with?”
And what can you do about that scenario? Well, nothing, frankly. That’s like trying to say that because you once had a terrific idea about renovating a Victorian townhouse that was never commissioned, no-one else can develop or produce a property makeover show.
Ridiculous of course and you’d have Kevin McCloud, Sarah Beeny, Kelly Hoppen, Colin & Justin, Tommy Walsh, Kirsty Allsopp, George Clarke and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen all slopping out together in Ford Open Prison. Maybe. (Now there’s a show, right there.)
SOCIAL NETWORKS ON YOUR SIDE
Sure, there are charlatans in this industry – as there are in every industry – who wouldn’t think twice about shafting someone new, an idealistic and naive unknown looking to make their mark, but if blatant ripping-off or theft of ideas and scripts was as prolific as some people would have you believe, the law courts would be full of such cases, with the plaintiffs championed in web forums and on social networks.
On that subject and loving the Twitter as I do, I couldn’t resist dropping Sam Bain a tweet anyway – just ‘cos you can!
No response forthcoming as yet though, if he even saw the message on his timeline.
With a quick Google – ‘stole tv show idea’ – only a few stories come up – none of them particularly credible and none – that I’m aware of – with any follow up or successful prosecution: this one from 2002; one here from 2005; this from 2009 and one from November 2010. Hardly comparable to the Arab Spring is it?
The Bottom Line
So, going back to the original question prompted by a drunken exchange at a party: should these writers, any writers, register their work before talking to anyone in this industry? Well, sure, if you feel the need then it’s not going to hurt – other than some mild irritation to your wallet – and the web is awash with providers who say they can protect your interests. The Script Vault is certainly worth checking out, is approved by the Writer’s Guild Of Great Britain and has some very useful information on what can be registered before parting with your hard-earned cash.
For my money though, the most important thing is to be as specific as possible when thinking about your ideas. Really drill down into what makes your idea SO different from anything else out there. What is it about your idea, your characters, your story, your gameplay, your end-of-show reveal that makes it SO truly unique?
When you’re satisfied, then sure, go register the idea and any associated assets. But in my opinion and our experience, it’s actually more important to talk to people about it, since other people can – and will, willingly in the main – help you shape and evolve your idea for the better.
Be selective about who you tell, trust them and be careful how much you tell them of course, but do tell people, see what their responses are and act upon them.
I’ll sign off by, ahem, borrowing a quote from The Queen of Cosmetics, Mary Kay Ash who once said, apparently, that “a mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.” Nice.