No One Is Stealing Reality Shows

American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Got Talent were at the center of a recent lawsuit, where an Australian man accused the creators of ripping off his ideas. Plaintiff Paul Thayil alleged that, in 1997, he created a marketing plan for two shows, “MusicFlow” and “ShyDancer.”  The projects contained many elements now seen on television, including multi-city tours, judges, “going to Hollywood,” talent discovery, and rounds of competitions.

Thayil says he gave his plan to an Australian Newspaper, to EMI Music, and Sony Music.  The concepts were rejected.  He alleges copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and unfair competition.  Thayil also attempted to bring a claim that the defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, typically used against mobsters.

U.S. District Judge rejected Thayil’s claims with prejudice because the plaintiff could not show that his marketing plan was copyrighted, nor that any of his “generalized abstractions” were protectable.  The judge also dismissed conspiracy claims, since none of the elements of the crime were met.

Should reality show formats be protected or protectable?  How would one express those ideas to make the format copyrightable?

For more information, see: The Hollywood Reporter.


  1. It is interesting that you should bring up this topic. I was just having a conversation with a friend the other day, reminiscing on the days when “reality TV” did not yet exist – when sitcoms and dramas ruled the roost during primetime. Now, it seems as though reality television has taken the biggest bite out of viewing time, and everyone seems to want a nibble at the meal.

    I agree with the district court’s decision here regarding Thayil’s alleged copyright of the successful reality shows. In order to claim copyright infringement of his plans, Thayil would have needed to prove that the originality in the ideas stemmed from his own conceptions and show how he fixated these plans into a tangible, working medium. However, Thayil failed to meet these standards. Like the article states, all of these reality shows have so much in common – everyone tries to make it to Hollywood and become the next big thing. But, some of these shows also include an interactive element with the viewing audience. So, what would someone like Thayil be looking to copyright – the idea that “going to Hollywood” is the end all for a contestant to make it big or crowning winners (like American Idol) as the “America’s favorite?” Unless the claimant can argue that he reduced these “generalized abstractions” into practice first, I do not believe he should be afforded copyright protections.

  2. How could American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Got Talent all “steal” his ideas? Then, wouldn’t it possible that each show is “stealing” the ideas of each other? Unfortunately, a live show that films real unknown people competing in musical form is just not original. The list of shows mentioned here is not an exhaustive lists of reality shows that have people compete on national television for the chance to make it as a star. Legally, in order to succeed in the legal claims he was trying to bring, his idea must be a tangible form. In law, having an idea and putting it in tangible form separates a good idea from a copyrighted one.

  3. I think that the reality television program formula is not unique in any capacity, and that Thayil has no claim. When reality television really started to become popular every show seemed to center around the idea of there being multiple rounds of competition and people getting voted off. I would have to agree with the U.S. District Judge that the types of ideas that Thayil is seeking to protect are “generalized abstractions” that are not eligible to be protected. It does not seem that his claims are specific enough to warrant a copyright. In addition, the fact that there are so many shows that fit the model that he allegedly created proves that this is not the most distinctive idea. It seems to me that he may just be trying to cash in on the success of these types of programs. I wonder if he would have tried to bring a copyright claim if all of these types of shows were complete failures in the reality television world.

  4. I agree with these comments. If reality show creators want to copyright the tangible expression of their ideas, there should be a process by which they submit them. Maybe the Writers Guild will start to recognize reality formats, as they do screenplays. The competition aspect of the shows should not be copyrightable, nor should the general idea of “going to Hollywood,” as that is where most of the tapings take place anyway. As for crowning a winner? That is the nature of the competition and therefore, should not be copyrightable either. Thayil does not have a case here.

  5. This is interesting because as said in an above comment – all reality shows are basically based on the same thing – many people competing, some people getting voted off and some achieving victory. This formula seems impossible to copyright. However, I do wonder where the line is – because at this point I only seem to be clear where the line is not. You can have random people live in a house and be filmed. They can compete or not compete for a prize. For example, The Real World or Big Brother vs. America’s Next Top Model. Or you can have contestant compete and be voted off one by one as in American Idol or the other numerous singing competitions. The formula does not seem protectable.

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