Why you can do nothing if the BBC or anyone else steals your TV or film idea

The figure of Justice - blindfolded to avoid seeing any truths

Justice, as always, is blind in the UK

I went to a Creative England ‘crew night’ at Elstree Studios last night.

In theory, these evenings are a chance for people to sell their services – as camera people, accountants, make-up artists, prop suppliers and the rest – to producers, directors and production companies. In practice, it mostly turns out to be suppliers of such services talking to other suppliers of similar services and to recently-graduated film students while they desperately look over their shoulders for non-existent producers, directors and production company executives.

I went because Elstree Studios are at the end of my high street in Borehamwood and because I correctly guessed there would be free egg sandwiches and crisps. I am an overweight man without shame.

I got chatting to an enthusiastic young man who foolishly started talking to me because (I think) he figured anyone as old and overweight as me must be a good bet for an established figure with finance to spare.

How wrong can an enthusiastic young man be?

“I’ve got this great idea,” was his opening gambit.

Mistake Number One.

Never tell a stranger your idea. They may steal it.

If a large, established film company wants your idea, they will probably just pay you money and give you a producer credit.

If a successful, well-financed film company simply steals your idea, you can do nothing about it. They will out-finance you in any legal case and, if you abandon your case, you will be liable for their costs.

If a small film company steals your idea they may possibly, if you are lucky, give you a percentage of the film’s net profit (which will be zero), no salary and a producer credit.

If a small film company screws you and makes an unsuccessful film from your idea and you sue them, you are throwing your money away in legal costs because the film made no money and there are no profits in which you can share.

If a small film company screws you and miraculously makes a successful film from your idea, gets shedloads of money and you sue them then, again, they will simply out-finance you and, if you abandon your case, you will be liable for their costs.

If a TV company steals your idea, you are similarly screwed.

You cannot afford to sue a TV company. They will out-finance you in the legal process and, if you abandon your case, you will be liable for their costs.

Malcolm Hardee outside Grover Court in 1995

Malcolm Hardee told the man from the BBC to “Fuck off!”

Many years ago, the late Malcolm Hardee and I had an idea for a 26-part TV series. It would be made either as an independent production for the BBC or, more probably, as a BBC series with us as producers/associate producers or in some way involved and paid. We mapped out the structure and detailed series format.

We suggested our idea to the excellent and entirely trustworthy Janet Street-Porter who, at that time, was Head of Youth at BBC TV. She liked it and passed it upward to Alan Yentob who, at that time, was Controller of BBC2. He said he wanted to do it.

This was early in the year.

By autumn, the legendarily indecisive Yentob had changed his mind and decided he did not want to make the series. It may have been for budgetary reasons. Or on a whim.

But fair enough. No problem.

The idea, pretty much, had to be made as a BBC production/co-production or not at all because it partially relied on a lot of the BBC’s archive material.

About three years later (I can’t be exact) Malcolm received a phone call from someone at the BBC saying they were thinking of making a 26-part TV series and could they talk to him about putting them in touch with various people. The proposed BBC TV series had the same title as our idea, was on the same subject and had the same structure. There was no mistaking the rip-off.

Malcolm told the BBC man to fuck off and laughingly told me about the phone call. The BBC had forgotten from whom they had stolen the idea and had approached the very person they had nicked it from.

But it is not as simple as that.

Ideas are only ideas and two people can separately have an entirely original idea.

That was not the case with our idea, as the structure and even the title of the series was what we had suggested. It had been blatantly ripped-off, though it was never actually made.

Oddly, in the UK, the BBC has a worse reputation for stealing ideas than ITV, Channel 4 and the small independent producers. I suspect this is because of size.

I suspect what happened with our idea (which had been given a provisional go-ahead as a general, well-formatted idea for a BBC project but had not had any concrete work done on it) was that it had been discussed by and mentioned to various people and, three years later, someone simply plucked it from their memory without remembering or caring how it had got into their mind.

Channel 4 has fewer reasons to steal ideas

Channel 4 is less likely to steal

Channel 4 has no corporate reason to steal ideas: it commissions but does not make programmes. And, unlike the BBC and ITV, small independents (by and large) have no standing staff crews. They do not have staff instantly available for projects. They get ideas commissioned and then employ people on a project-by-project basis.

So, if you take an idea to them and you have all the contacts, knowledge and experience, they might as well bring you in as part of the production team and possibly (though rarely) cut you in on a small percentage of the money because it is easier to use your knowledge rather than employ someone who has to get to the state of knowledge you already have. Also, it is not the production company’s money; they can insert you into the production process within the budget which gets agreed by the commissioning channel; you become part of the overheads.

With the BBC, there are large numbers of staff on the payroll, so it is psychologically easier to rip-off external people’s ideas because the BBC is a vast organisation; and it is practically easier to rip you off because there are people already on the ongoing BBC payroll who can get together all the facts, contacts and research required.

It is easier to screw you and the person screwing you will probably not even be the person you gave your idea to.

It will be their boss or their boss’s boss or another producer who heard the idea from another producer who heard it from the secretary of the person you originally told.

So…

– There is simple theft of an idea.

– There is second-hand theft of an idea.

– There are cases where people have genuinely forgotten they heard the idea from someone else and think it is their own new idea.

– And there are cases where two unconnected people have simply come up with exactly the same idea because it is a concept whose time has come.

Whatever.

You can send manuscripts, plot outlines, formats and everything to yourself or your solicitor in strongly sealed envelopes by registered post and not open them when you receive them – thus being able to prove that you had a specific idea in detail on a specific date…

But, by and large, if a TV or film company or a producer decides to rip off your idea, there is nothing you can do about it unless you win the Lottery.

So it goes.

7 Comments

Filed under Copyright, Movies, Television, Writing

7 responses to “Why you can do nothing if the BBC or anyone else steals your TV or film idea

  1. If good creative ideas can be appropriated by those without an original thought to their name, then it follows that creativity has no actual value. It puts me in mind of the Monty Python sketch, where they argue that black is white, and the sky isn’t blue etc.

    Is there any point where a person can categorically lay claim to ownership of a creative idea? If a book was published, a performance recorded, a play staged, or a blog written?

    Or does it really just come down to who has the deepest pockets to employ the best lawyers? Perhaps there is no point in having creative ideas, unless you have the wherewithal to execute them.

    • Yes, it all comes down to who has the deepest pockets. Of course, if you actually publish a book or blog or produce and release a movie or TV show, then no-one can steal the idea because the idea has been released. But then we are into the area of rampant piracy. Some people I know see no moral problem about copying a music album or movie DVD they have not bought.

  2. Stephan Vincent

    I have been doing a cabaret act for over ten years. I have written a sit-com based on the act that is so simple to film that the major expense will be the crew catering.

    I want to submit the idea to the BBC writer’s room in April, but now I am worried that the idea and original material will be stolen by the team that make Chewing the Fat, or another Glasgow-based comedy production team.

    Apart from sending myself and family members the script in a well-sealed envelope, what else can I do?

    Best wishes, Stephan Vincent

    • If you want the BBC and only the BBC to do it, you will have to trust the BBC. But the BBC is not the only channel in the UK and the BBC is not the only TV production company in the UK.

  3. John – in response to your point that if someone has written a book then the appropriation can’t take place, you might want to take a gander at https://twitter.com/MRHall_books/status/665119142081650688 – here’s a project that is a book, was submitted to the BBC on several occasions as tv drama, and the BBC then make their own – go figure as our American cousins say.

    Personally I have been told of one of my ideas by a BBC channel controller, “Don’t let in-house see this or they’ll steal it” That’s the culture of BBC commissioners.
    I think its time the commissioning submission process was put into independent hands who could adjudicate.

  4. This resonates with me and it was truly awful what they did (or some lackey that works with them).
    I pitched a documentary proposal on a character they’d never been in touch with and the very next day they contacted the guy and got him to sign an exclusivity agreement. Coincidence they said and they’d had the idea for a while. Highly unlikely as the subject was needing to be filmed within 2 weeks of me sending the proposal. Would they really sit on an idea till the last minute? I have the email sending time as proof and I intend to contact the press about this and some other matters very soon.
    I kept quiet for so long as I feared I’d never get a project broadcast again.

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