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Reality lands in courtroom

Apr 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Surviving crocodiles and other dangers in the Australian Outback may be child’s play compared with the venomous striking power of a lawyer with subpoenas in hand.
What began with star-crossed reality contestants becoming court-bound litigants now has reality shows turning against each other. CBS and the producers of “Survivor” filed a copyright infringement lawsuit last week against Fox and the producers of “Boot Camp,” claiming the new Fox reality hit is an outright clone of “Survivor.”
The federal suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, charges that “Boot Camp” violates federal and California state law in that “the premise of and format of `Boot Camp’ are virtually identical to `Survivor.”’
However, Peter Dekom, a prominent Hollywood entertainment attorney, found that the suit, also brought by “Survivor” Executive Producer Mark Burnett, may be of “dubious value” in relation to the “strict” definitions of copyright law.
“Copyright law is designed to protect tangible expressions and not ideas,” Mr. Dekom said. “The fact that the show is accessible to everyone does not mean they can take complete ownership of the idea at the exclusion of other First Amendment freedom of speech protections. Before `Survivor,’ we had the competition format between `Gladiator’ and `Ben-Hur,’ but that doesn’t mean either can claim the ownership of those ideas to sue one another.”
CBS claims that after CBS Network Television President Leslie Moonves passed on “Boot Camp” and Fox ordered it as a midseason replacement, series producer LMNO Productions altered the “Boot Camp” concept to be more like “Survivor,” in which the contestants vote each other off the show. LMNO also hired Scott Messick, a producer on the original “Survivor” series, as director and executive producer of “Boot Camp.” CBS charges that Mr. Messick violated confidentiality agreements by allegedly appropriating ideas from “Survivor.”
Fox’s only response was a terse statement claiming there is “absolutely no basis for the claims made by CBS and Mark Burnett. The shows are very different, and we believe this is a frivolous lawsuit.” A spokeswoman for LMNO said the Los Angeles-based company is withholding comment until it has read and interpreted the lawsuit. Spokespersons for CBS and Mr. Burnett did not return calls.
Several other leading Hollywood agents and consultants find the suit to be questionable, which suggests that CBS was possibly looking for retribution after Fox Family Channel filed a suit earlier this year seeking to get the Eye Network to change the title of a reality series. Both Fox Family Channel and CBS had reality shows in development titled “Race Around the World.” CBS backed down and retitled its show “The Amazing Race.”
One production source with close contacts to Mr. Burnett said Mr. Burnett could be challenged to produce the “rule book” he acquired from Dutch producers Sveriges Television and Pilot 24 Productions, who originally created the “Survivor” format, if the “Boot Camp” suit goes to trial.
“Burnett bought the rights in an above-board deal,” said Mr. Burnett’s work associate. “He could find himself caught up in a messy trial where he has to explain how much of `Survivor’ is not an original concept or format.”
One Hollywood agent, who asked for anonymity, said that in view of reality series like “America’s Funniest Videos” and “Hidden Camera” having followed years after “Candid Camera,” “There just seems to be 2 degrees of separation, and this would really open up too many doubts about what legitimately merits a copyright suit. If you look at all of the derivative cop shows, hospital shows and sitcoms, it all just feeds into the adage of imitation being the sincerest form of television.”