Jewish World Review March 23, 2005 / 27 Adar I 5765
Stealing is now officially legal: 5th Circuit Court Approves Theft of Your Creativityhttp://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | If you have an idea, shut up. If you live outside Hollywood forget ever making it there. If you tell your idea to someone who didn't ask for it, they don't owe you anything, even if they use it. Most important, if you don't sell your idea before you pitch it, shame on you.
If I was a National Lampoon editor (which I am) I would turn down the thought as too incredible.
But last week the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision in the case of Harry T. Keane vs. Fox Television, Simon Cowell, Simon Fuller and against everyone else who is making a mint with American Idol. The ruling goes much further than questions of whether or not the American Idol concept was stolen in the David vs. Goliath case. It goes to the heart of one's creativity and the court's approval of theft.
In part, the part that should have network and studio execs jumping for joy, the decision read, "...an idea purveyor cannot collect unless he has obtained a promise to pay."
Another words, from now on, if you are a writer who has come up with a brilliant idea (or a lousy one for that matter), your pitch to the powers to be must include a commitment for payment. And they better make it clear.
In actuality, I always knew this. I just didn't think a court would back it up. A few years back, I pitched an idea to a showrunner (executive producer) of a network television series. He liked the idea and told me to start working on it. As I knew the producer well and he had run plenty of successful shows and I was a Writers Guild member with a number of network credits under my belt, I started working on it. After a few weeks, the network told the producer that they never gave the okay for the idea and they wouldn't pay for it. The legal department of the Writers Guild, my union backed the network, saying that I should have elicited a precise statement from the producer that he had the authorization to approve my idea. I don't know if anyone reading this has ever pitched an idea to an showrunner who has an office on a studio lot and runs a network series, but first asking if they have authorization to approve my idea is not a way to make friends nor a receptive executive.
The court's ruling now sets forth a clear understanding of just how an idea should be presented.
"Mr. Person I Would Give My Oldest Male Child To For You To Buy My Idea, I have a terrific idea that I just know you would love and might even make untold riches with. But before I tell you this idea, I would love you to sign this paper that you will pay me for it, or better yet, would you mind giving me money before I tell you."
The ruling should nail the coffin shut on such organizations and conventions as NAPTE (National Organization of Programming Television Executives) where those in the hunt for new shows go to fill out the TV schedules and hear hundreds of unsolicited pitches of new programming ideas.
As Ryan Bormaster, Keane's original attorney put it, "The 5th circuit has just shot an arrow through the heart of American ingenuity and creativity. This will end the free flow of ideas and concepts for TV programming, which has played such an integral role in the growth of the entertainment industry. With no laws to adequately protect the little guy, giants like Fox will continue to steal from the creator."
Hollywood stealing ideas? Not my compassionate Hollywood. It must be a bad dream. A bad dream made real in federal court. Next thing you know, they'll be saying there's ageism in Hollywood.
But it really goes much further than show biz dreams of your idea reaching the screen. It reaches into the real world of ideas of all kinds. Even trademarks, the court ruled, do not protect you from theft of your concepts...of your dreams.
From film scripts to water-into-oil inventions, the Internet has given birth to any number of web sites that promise to get your ideas to those who can afford to bring them to fruition. Admittedly, you'd have to be a bit of a fool to believe that some Spielberg or even some Spielbergawitz is perusing the Internet for the next blockbuster, but giving unprincipled producers (as if there are any) the legal right to snatch your hopes with nary a whimper of conscience, is a sin and a death knoll to anyone who ever had a dream.
Actual court petition: http://www.aimpress.com/AIfinalpetition.htm
5th Circuit Court Decision: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/04/04-20340.0.wpd.pdf