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Welcome to the website of the Internet and Intellectual Property Justice Clinic, a University of San Francisco School of Law clinical program that provides legal assistance to parties in intellectual property matters. For more information, see the "About Us" page.

Our website includes commentary from our students on cutting-edge internet law and intellectual property topics. Those posts are listed below, and more are archived under "Pages" on the right. Enjoy!

Protecting Hollywood’s Business Model

By Erin H., Corey C., and Annie M.

   At the core of copyright law is the rule that mere ideas are not the subject of copyright, but what may be protected is the artist’s particular expression of those ideas.  This doctrine is called the idea-expression dichotomy.  Due to this doctrine, every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.

   Recently, Larry Montz, a parapsychologist with self-proclaimed clairvoyant abilities, ran up against the idea-expression dichotomy when he attempted to sue both NBC and Syfy for misappropriation of his idea.  Essentially, Montz had developed an idea based on his own proclaimed paranormal experiences for a reality television show that would follow a team of paranormal investigators around the country, documenting their finds.  From 1996 to 2003, Montz and Daena Smoller, his publicist and producer, pitched the idea to television studios and producers, including representatives of NBC and Syfy.  While the studios all claimed that they were not interested, three years later the show Ghost Hunters aired; a reality television show that was essentially the same show as the one Montz had pitched.

   Montz and Smoller filed suit against NBC and Syfy, arguing that they had stolen his idea for a reality-television show without paying him and therefore breached an implied contract to compensate him for his work if they used the idea.  The lower court sided with the studios, determining that Montz’s contract claims were preempted by federal copyright law.  Because of the idea-expression dichotomy, federal copyright law does not protect ideas, and therefore the studios were essentially only “stealing” an unprotected idea and not a protected expression of it.
   On appeal, the 9th Circuit reversed and sided with Montz and Smoller, finding that copyright law did not preempt his claims.  The Court’s reasoning for this relied on the concept that the idea for the show was clearly outside the scope of protectable subject matter that copyright law is designed to cover.  Because of this, the copyright act does not apply at all, and would not bar Montz and Smoller’s breach of implied contract claim.

   So what does this mean for the future?  According to Montz’s attorney, Graham LippSmith, “It's a big issue for the entertainment industry.  It means the little guy is still going to be protected, people trying to find their way into the entertainment industry."  Hollywood’s current business model of informal meetings and interchange of ideas will be protected, as this process is crucial to the development of new ideas and the flourishing of the film industry.  The studios can be guaranteed new ideas, and the “little guy” will be compensated accordingly.  Despite the studios’ position on this case, it is essentially win-win.