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TV format licensing checklist

In a scene from the iconic Aussie film The Castle, if something is precious or highly valued by the protagonist Darryl Kerrigan it goes "straight to the pool room". That said, I'm not sure even Darryl has a room that is worthy of the latest achievement of Working Dog, the production company behind The Castle.

Their latest TV creation "Thank God You're Here" (TYGH) has just taken the honour of being the first Australian TV format to be taken up by a US Network, according to Crikey's Glenn Dyer. The US version of TGYH aired on NBC in America the other day to 8.3 million people, which according to Dyer is only an "OK" result. Given the trend of TV importation flows the other way ad nauseum, here at the Lightbulb we're certainly impressed.

Success isn't new to the team behind Working Dog. Their long list of achievements stretches from iconic films such as The Dish, travel satire books like "Phaic Tan" and various TV successes, the latest of which has just gone global.

Thank God You're Here (or TGYH) is co-produced by Fremantle Media and was a runaway success in Australia, regularly taking top spot in its timeslot and even grabbing the second-most watched program on Channel 10 in 2006. Its brilliant simplicity and universal appeal made it an ideal candidate for licensing the format to other territories. Case in point - the star of the first US TGYH show, Jason Alexander (AKA George from Seinfeld), reportedly asked to be involved with the US series after he saw an episode of the Australian series on a Qantas flight.

You can view clips from the US show here. Call me biased, but they've got nothing on Tony Martin's Swat Team Leader.

But all opinions aside, from a legal viewpoint there are two issues worth focusing on. One of them is the protection of TV formats. The other is licensing. Both are key to achieving the success as Working Dog has.

TV formats

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The law most relevant to protecting a TV format is the law of copyright. Fundamental to understanding how this works is the two primary principles of copyright law: firstly, copyright only protects that which is original, and secondly copyright does not protect ideas, but rather the expression of those ideas in material form.

Accordingly, the crux of ensuring maximum protection in a TV format lies in both the originality of the format, and the detailed codification of that format concept through scripts, overviews, specifications, descriptions or other appropriate means.

Licensing

There can be big, big dollars in TV licensing.  In terms of straight broadcasting rights, the reported license fees for the reality TV show "The Osbournes" were approximately USD$15 million.

Of course, licensing a TV format (as opposed to broadcast rights) for others to reproduce your program is even more complicated. A recent article of ours, Seven Deadly Sins in Licensing, highlights some important mistakes that can often be made when entering into and managing licensing agreements and relationships.

Checklist

There are many ways a lawyer can assist you to successfully commercialise a TV format concept. These include:

  • Review of your format concept from a legal perspective to advise on its originality and the likely extent of copyright protection.
  • Advising on record keeping and other ways to demonstrate independent authorship.
  • Preparation of contracts with creatives who develop the format, eg screenwriters, signature melody composer, screen credits designers, stage set designer, lighting designer and photographers.
  • Assisting you to prepare a Format Bible or formal proposal setting out the concept in such a way to maximise protection.
  • Preparing confidentiality agreements to ensure collaborators and others are held to strict obligations of confidence, preserving the originality of your idea.
  • Advising you on the use of trade marks to add a further layer of protection to your format's name, logo or other key elements.
  • Assisting you in negotiation of a licence arrangement, and other ancillary contractual relationships.
  • Preparation of licensing contracts, customised to your specific circumstances.

To paraphrase The Castle's Darryl again, you might say that effectively licensing a TV format is 60% format protection, 45% licensing know-how, and the rest is just good luck. Call us to discuss your needs today.


Further reading on entertainment law, IPTV and television broadcasting:


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