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BBC Studios and Channel 4 risk court case by ripping-off President Obonjo…

#JusticeForObonjo !

BBC TV has a track record for simply stealing ideas.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of UK comedy critics agrees: “They do have a bit of a rep for being sticky-fingered.”

I mentioned one case in passing in a 2013 blog in which the Beeb tried to rip-off an idea the late Malcolm Hardee and I had. 

Which brings us to the current great rip-off scandal involving BBC Studios.

Monday 12th August sees a one-off event at the Edinburgh FringeAn Audience with President Obonjo: in effect, a fake press conference by the original African comedy dictator. This should be quite an event. Fur will fly.

Everyone on the UK comedy scene seems fairly gobsmacked at the utterly blatant rip-off of Benjamin Bankole Bello’s widely-known, much admired and increasingly prestigious character President Obonjo – an African military dictator adrift in the UK – which he has been building on the UK comedy circuit for the last ten years…  

The BBC have sold a non-broadcast pilot idea to E4 (part of Channel 4) featuring an African military dictator adrift in the UK but in what – on the basis of a trailer promoting it – appears to be a wildly racist lowest-common-denominator pile of steaming crap.

I am, perhaps, being too generous.

The general perception of the BBC (and, guilty by association) Channel 4 is that they are either 

  1. blatant thieves or 
  2. an amateurish shambles who don’t know anything about the live comedy industry…

When news of this rip-off first surfaced a few weeks ago, it seemed obvious that it was, indeed, a rip-off. But, as I blogged at the time, there was and is another – perhaps worse – possibility:

The (as it turned out) ironically-titled 2015 Fringe show

“If the BBC Studios Comedy team are not thieves, they are so utterly ignorant of their own area of entertainment that they should be sacked for utter laziness and for being incompetent wankers.”

When this scandal – for scandal it is – blew up, the BBC producer associated with the apparent rip-off, Ben Caudell, contacted Benjamin Bello for a meeting on 22nd July… presumably to try to smother criticism. 

He was apparently a tad surprised when Benjamin turned up with the aforementioned Kate Copstick, the most revered and arguably most fearsome comedy critic in the UK. It is not irrelevant that Copstick trained as a lawyer.

So let us be generous and presume that the BBC did not wantonly steal the idea from Benjamin. Let us assume that they are simply incompetent.

At the meeting with Benjamin Bankole Bello (remember that exact name) and Copstick – speaking in his capacity as a member of the BBC Studios Comedy team – Ben Caudell claimed never to have known about the widely-known President Obonjo character before the scandal blew up – although ‘President Obonjo’ had been performing on the live circuit over the last ten years, had staged two well-reviewed Edinburgh Fringe shows and had had multiple contacts with the BBC over a period of years. 

Ben Caudell also detailed how the BBC’s character of an African military dictator adrift in the UK had been developed separately from any knowledge of the existence of ‘President Obonjo’, an African military dictator adrift in the UK.

Interestingly, Copstick was later told by another BBC production person an entirely different story of how the BBC ‘innocently’ developed the entirely original character of an African military dictator adrift in the UK. 

A load of bull (Photo by Christian Wiediger via UnSplash)

The cynical might observe that, if you are going to tell potential porkies, at least agree beforehand on the same story. At least one (or more) of these conflicting stories has to be bollocks.

Anyway… Ben Caudell said, in his own defence, at the meeting with Copstick and Benjamin Bello (ie in front of witnesses), that “I don’t have much to do with live comedy… They’re not nearly as important as they think they are”.

This might go some way to explain how a BBC producer or a bunch of BBC producers (I believe the collective noun is ‘a bullshit’ of BBC producers) could be totally and utterly ignorant of an act which had been playing the London and UK circuit for ten years – widely known – AND had staged two well-reviewed (4-star) Edinburgh Fringe shows AND had multiple contacts with BBC TV over several years specifically about the President Obonjo character (the BBC response at that time had been: “We like what you do”).

Let us be clear that the BBC rip-off character was (allegedly) thought-up by BBC producers, progressed after discussion and development with others to the top of BBC Studios Comedy tree without anyone realising there was a President Obonjo act. Allegedly.

President Obonjo had been twice in the BBC New Comedy Awards competition with videos submitted in 2012 and 2014. The character was considered for the BBC’s own Caroline Aherne Bursary Scheme in 2018 and President Obonjo sketches were submitted to BBC3 earlier this year.

Bear in mind that the BBC’s ‘Colonel Banjoko’ character was (allegedly) created by people who had never heard of Benjamin Bankolo Bello’s original character President Obonjo. There is a striking similarity in names going on there.

I had thought Ben Caudell might have gone for the My Sweet Lord defence in which George Harrison copied I think note-for-note Ronnie Mack’s country & western song He’s So Fine but said he had not consciously copied the song: it must have got into his subconscious after hearing it.

The increasingly prestigious President at the 2017 Fringe

But, no, Ben Caudell, speaking on behalf of BBC Studios, was not saying he or anyone else had seen or heard of Benjamin Bankolo Bello’s President Obonjo character when creating their Colonel Banjoko character.

They could have said they didn’t like ‘President Obonjo’ and had been inspired to create a ‘better’ and different character.

But no. The claim was that no-one at all at any point in the development and commissioning process had ever heard of or seen the President Obonjo character… (Reminder: the previous BBC response to viewing the President Obonjo character: “We like what you do”)

So Ben Caudell suggested:

“As a gesture of goodwill, we will use best endeavours to feature President Obonjo in some way in an episode of a potential future series. This would of course be subject to broadcaster and commissioner approval.”

So no real offer of anything.

As Copstick wisely says: “As soon as they say best endeavours, they’re really not interested.”

When pushed further, Ben Caudell suggested: “How about this: to demonstrate that we really do want to acknowledge President Obonjo, why don’t we – with your permission – do a video version of your poster idea in our pilot? We’re thinking of doing a VT explaining Colonel Banjoko’s rise and fall. A photo of President Obonjo could feature in that, as the Colonel’s predecessor. How does that sound?”

Worth remembering here that it is a non-broadcast pilot which would not be screened on-air.

Last week, Kate Copstick got in touch with Karl Warner, Controller of E4, pointing out that the proposed BBC/E4 series “with its curiously, closely similar spoof African dictator will destroy (Benjamin Bello’s) act, his career and his livelihood. We met with Ben Caudell, who is producing the pilot. He gave one version of how the character came to be, since when we have been assured by someone else of another version (completely different) of how the character came to be. He (Benjamin Bello) is looking at a ten year career disappearing. Should this show be allowed to go ahead he will have nowhere to go with his character… his career… his creation.”

Karl Warner replied: “We’re satisfied that there’s been no infringement of intellectual property by BBC Studios in this case.”

Note that Channel 4’s statutory public service remit includes that it should “be innovative and distinctive.” 

I think a hollow laugh might be in order at this point.

Obviously, Copstick, I and Benjamin Bello have discussed the problem. This part of our discussion might be interesting, remembering that Copstick and I have a TV production background and Copstick trained as a lawyer:


President Obonjo and Copstick in Edinburgh

COPSTICK: Ben Caudell talked vaguely about the people upstairs. But, basically, anyone who has any power at the BBC doesn’t want to have anything to do with this and they’re just going to carry on. He can do nothing. 

The men in suits will not react, because they are so sure they are more powerful than anybody and can just wait until it all goes away. Or they will mumble something about “best endeavours”. 

There was a chance when we met him that he was actually vaguely decent and was thinking Well, maybe there’s something we can do that will keep everybody happy. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think he was just sent in there like a canary in the mine. They think it’s all going to go away.

I contacted a very prominent QC who specialises in Intellectual Property who says we have a reasonable case on several fronts. I asked to what extent could sections of the Universal Declaration of  Human Rights, as taken on by the EU’s Human Rights legislation, be used in an Intellectual Property case where the victim has kind-of shot himself in the foot because he has previously sent off ideas to a company. And, as we know, ideas are not copyrightable. 

JOHN: That’s the massive get-out clause for all broadcasters ripping-off people’s ideas.

COPSTICK: Yes. The fucker is that Benjamin sent the BBC ideas and one of them was not a chat show but, from what I’ve read of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, your rights in your own Intellectual Property are your human rights, because your Intellectual Property is seen as an extension of yourself – especially where it’s something like a character. So, even though you are fucked under UK statute law, because you sent them ideas, there is the Human Rights angle.

JOHN: What did the QC say?

COPSTICK: He said: “That’s interesting”… Given than Benjamin has been doing this character and only this character for ten years, you could argue that it is his business… It is a business he has created and a business in which there is a lot of goodwill. It is a ‘brand’ and there is a lot of goodwill. So, by doing what BBC Studios and Channel 4 are doing, they are infringing the goodwill of the brand. Which is (a) true and (b) very monetisable.

JOHN: Well, I’m not worried about a court case. I would welcome the publicity!

COPSTICK: We will fight if necessary and the embarrassment factor for them would be at absolute maximum.

JOHN: And the QC would work pro bono…

COPSTICK: Yes.

JOHN: My angle is that, even if they didn’t rip it off intentionally – which stretches credulity a bit – the only alternative explanation is that they are incompetent idiots.

COPSTICK: They are worse than incompetent idiots. They are dangerous and damaging. 

JOHN: …because they are knowingly going to destroy a career built-up over ten years…

COPSTICK: Yes. They are going to destroy a career AND… they don’t care!

JOHN: And, given that Ben Caudell is married to an actress, Diane Morgan, it’s shocking that he doesn’t care more about performers’ careers.

COPSTICK: They really don’t care and also, even if everything they say is true, then what does that say about the attitude of BBC Television Comedy to live comedy? Live comedy is only important to them as a place where they go to steal ideas.

Although Benjamin did not send them a format with the President in a talk show format, by putting AN Other President in the talk show, they have more or less stolen the character as long as there’s enough similarity between the two presidents. What they will do is change his back story.

BENJAMIN: I talked to an Intellectual Property lawyer too and one of the things that President Obonjo does is he is very prominent on social media including YouTube videos and he is talking in character. 

JOHN: You are so prominent all over the place that it is inconceivable – unless the producers at the BBC are utterly incompetent and simply not even remotely doing their job properly – that they didn’t know you existed. The only way in which they could not know you existed was if they were totally inept.

If they claim that nobody developing or commissioning comedy at BBC TV or at Channel 4 had ever heard of you, it implies nobody at BBC TV Comedy or at Channel 4 Comedy knows or cares anything about live comedy over the last couple of years, let alone the last ten years.


#JusticeForObonjo !

President Obonjo’s 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show

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BBC TV stole this character comic’s identity, making Channel 4 complicit

The one, the original – President Obonjo – cajoles, intimidates and for sure entertains his audience

In the last four days, within the cyber bubble of the UK comedy industry, there has been a shitstorm on Twitter and Facebook about BBC Studios apparently ripping off a character comedian’s long-running on-stage persona and selling a series pilot based on it to E4 (part of Channel 4).

So obviously, yesterday, I had a chat with the wronged ‘President Obonjo aka comedian Benjamin Bankole Bello (remember that exact name).

There is a certain element in this rip-off by the BBC of life imitating art.

President Obonjo Stole My Identity – at Edinburgh in 2015

In 2015, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Benjamin performed a show: President Obonjo Stole My Identity. 

“Remind me what it was about?” I asked him yesterday.

“It was about the fact I had created this character – President Obonjo – and people had forgotten about me, Benjamin Bello. Everybody just wanted President Obonjo. Even when people saw me without the uniform, they always called me President Obonjo. So the whole idea was that President Obonjo had stolen my identity.”

“And you performed that around the London circuit…”

“Yes. And around the country. And for two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe. It got a 5-star review from Fringe Guru and 4-stars from The Wee Review.”

In an August 2015 blog from the Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote about Benjamin performing President Obonjo Stole My Identity: “He has great audience control. The character was immediately taken-to-heart by the audience. And then he takes the uniform off, becomes Benjamin Bello and analyses the nature of character comedy, wonders why the character he writes and performs is funnier than he himself is on stage… and then puts the uniform back on and becomes the character again. Loud, loud laughter.”

I myself had first blogged about the President Obonjo character when I met Benjamin at a radio show recording in Streatham in September 2014.

In November 2016, I interviewed him about his appearance in the final of the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian of the Year competition.

In that year, he had reached the finals of seven comedy competitions and won two of them. It “has helped my profile” he told me then. 

Obonjo’s 2017 Fringe show – The Rise of a Comedy Dictator

In August 2017 I blogged, again from the Edinburgh Fringe, that his “African dictator character dominates any room and he had a “full-to-the-brim audience eating out of his hand… a tribute to his skill.”

Bear all this in mind, dear reader, in what follows. Remember almost ten years on the comedy circuit, the Edinburgh Fringe shows, the 5-star-reviews.

Last Wednesday (17th July) the Chortle comedy website reported that E4 had announced  that “Famalam and Sliced star Samson Kayo is to play a fictional African dictator” called Colonel Banjoko in a new spoof talk show.

By the next day, Chortle had contacted Benjamin Bankole Bello about the rip-off fake Africal military dictator Colonel Banjoko character (note, too, the similarity in names) because the President Obonjo character is so widely known by people in the comedy industry and is the only fake African military dictator on the comedy circuit. When reviewing President Obonjo over the years, Chortle had previously written: “It’s a great comic construct.”

The Londonist had reviewed Obonjo as having “the potential of that high-status, comedy bomb-proof kind of character.”

Fringe Guru, giving President Obonjo Stole My Identity a 5-star review, wrote: “On the face of it, it works as a well-crafted political comedy… But it’s the layers of context that really make this a fascinating, bewildering and painfully funny experience.”

When Chortle talked to Benjamin Bello last week, he told them: “E4 and BBC Studios have stolen my act… I have been developing the character President Obonjo on the comedy circuit for nearly ten years. I have carefully crafted the comedic personality of an African military dictator adrift in the UK and the similarities to the E4 pilot announced yesterday are deeply worrying… This is stealing 10 years of work.”

BBC Studios claimed their character (an African military dictator adrift in the UK) was the idea of “the BBC Studios Comedy team”.

But this is not what people in the comedy industry thought. 

President Obonjo in Streatham back in 2014

Comedian Dane Baptiste, a personal friend of actor Samson Kayo, said: “This is clearly a rip off of @realObonjo, a character that we on the circuit know and love. And we know nobody there came up with it because, well, you know…”

Comic Ignacio Lopez posted: “I saw a story about @E4Tweets’s new ‘African Dictator’ show & was about to congratulate @realObonjo, then I read it & realised it’s someone else. I find it hard to believe nobody flagged up the blatant similarities at any point during the development.”

The Wee Review website wrote of the announced E4 show: “A mad African dictator terrorising his audience for laughs? Count us in. Sounds like a great concept. In fact, we know it’s a great concept because someone’s successfully been entertaining Fringe audiences with it for years. And his name is President Obonjo… Comedy is a small world and it defies credibility that someone in a position to make or commission a TV comedy was not aware that a circuit act had been performing a very similar act for a decade. The assumption has to be they knew. And they knew they could get away with it.”

I agree. Either “the BBC Studios Comedy team” blatantly and intentionally stole the President Obonjo character thinking that they could wantonly and without consequence fuck-over a hard-working comic who does not (yet) have an agent… or “the BBC Studios Comedy team” had never heard of a widely-admired, widely-known, well-reviewed, award-winning comedy act which had been successfully playing the circuit for ten years and had appeared multiple times in full-length shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

If “the BBC Studios Comedy team” are not thieves, they are so utterly ignorant of their own area of entertainment that they should be sacked for utter laziness and for being incompetent wankers.

It is not as if the President Obonjo act was unknown to the BBC.

He was twice in the BBC New Comedy Awards competition – “I submitted my videos to them: I think it was 2012 and 2014,” Benjamin told me yesterday.

President welcomed me in London yesterday

“So they saw you in uniform in character in the videos?” I asked.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “And they acknowledged. They said: Yes, we like what you do. I also applied for the Caroline Aherne Bursary Scheme at the BBC in 2018 and I submitted sketches to BBC3 this year.”

(BBC3 is the channel which produced and transmitted Famalam, the series in which Samson Kayo starred – the same Samson Kayo who was announced as starring in the BBC Studios Obanjo rip-off series for E4.)

“The sketches you suggested to BBC3 specifically featured the President Obonjo character?” I asked.

“Yes. They just said: Come up with ideas. If you’ve got any sketch ideas, submit them to us. So I submitted ideas for the President Obonjo character.”

Given that E4 has commissioned a potentially career-destroying rip-off copy of President Obonjo’s 10-year-running character, it is worth remembering that parent company Channel 4’s statutory remit is “to deliver high-quality, innovative, alternative content”… Call me pedantic, but I do not see this statutory – I repeat statutory – remit to deliver innovative content as being the same thing as ripping-off existing, hard-working performers.

To look on the bright side of this utter shitstorm, we are one week away from the start of the Edinburgh Fringe, at which ‘President Obonjo’ unveils a new hour-long show: Goodbye Mr President… You could pay thousands to a PR guru to get publicity like this. 

I saw a work-in-progress preview of the new show two months ago and posted that the preview of Goodbye Mr President “was extraordinary and should be even more astonishing by the time it reaches Edinburgh. A tragic, true, single story which elicits natural laughs. It feels like the ideal Fringe show. Serious points being made about comedy, comedians, friendship and life. Laughs, tears, a gripping narrative and serious thoughts to take away from the venue.”

To continue looking for a twinkle of daylight among the BBC bullshit, this story of the BBC stealing President Obonjo’s identity and selling it to E4 could form the basis of a fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show by Benjamin Bello in 2020.

… MORE DETAILS OF THIS STORY IN A LATER BLOG HERE

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Banksy, the Lawyer and the Gangster – and the confusing matter of copyright

Micky Fawcett – art lover – at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.

My last blog was about an artist who was interested in gangsters.

This one is about a gangster who took an interest in art. 

The word gangster is faintly meaningless. It just means someone who is in a gang. So schoolchildren could be gangsters if they are in a gang, if you wanted to use the word in that context.

In the UK, the Kray Twins are another type of gangster. And, if someone was a close associate of theirs – if he was part of their ‘gang’ – then I suppose he could be called a gangster.

Micky sips a quiet coffee while perusing a shot of himself and ‘Brown Bread’ Fred Foreman in Brian Anderson’s recent photographic book

Micky Fawcett was a close associate of the Krays.

In Lock Stock and Two Smoking Cameras, Brian Anderson’s recent book of photographs of British crime figures, shot over ten years, Micky Fawcett is described as “a man who would not hesitate to use guns and razors, a well-known associate and part of the inner Kray circle in the 1960s. Author of Krayzy Days, which is said to be the best book written about the Krays due to Micky’s first-hand knowledge”.

(In the YouTube video above, Micky Fawcett appears at 1 min 03 secs.)

Krayzy Days tells of far more than just Micky’s life with the Krays. He was and is a man of many interests. Around 2006/2007, he took an interest in art and was involved with the Smudge Gallery in Spitalfields Market, London.

Page One of the letter from Banksy’s lawyer

On 17th November 2006, the street artist Banksy’s lawyer, sent a three-page letter to Micky. It started: “It has come to our client’s attention that a number of our client’s copyright works have been used by you without our client’s permission first being sought or obtained.”

The letter referred to “the continuing flagrancy of the infringement complained of (within the meaning of Section 97 (2) of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998)”.

Particularly miffing – Banksy art ad

Banksy – who is, lest we forget, famous for painting graffiti, usually uninvited, onto walls owned by other people – seemed to be particularly miffed that ads had appeared saying: 

PSST!

WANNA BUY A BANKSY?

VISIT SPITALFIELDSARTMARKET.CO.UK

A couple of days ago, I asked Micky about what had happened:

The Smudge Gallery in Spitalfields Market in London in 2006. It is no longer trading.


JOHN: Have you still got the shop?

MICKY: No.

JOHN: Because?

MICKY: The market was completely redeveloped and we no longer had the premises. So that was that.

JOHN: How long were you involved in the gallery?

MICKY: A couple of years, maybe.

JOHN: What had you done to incur the wrath of Banksy’s lawyer?

MICKY: We had hired a cameraman to go around taking pictures of all the Banksies, which we then transferred onto canvas and sold and we were very, very busy. The one with two policemen kissing was very popular. They all were, really. It was a tremendous business.

JOHN: That’s surely legal? You were taking photographs of something on a wall in public view from the public street so that’s in the public domain, isn’t it?

MICKY: No, it’s not legal at all.

JOHN: Surely, if it’s outside in the street, I can take a picture of it, can’t I? And the photograph is my copyright.

MICKY: You can take a picture of it, but you can’t put it onto a canvas as if you’ve done the picture.

JOHN: Banksy never put them on canvas, though. He put them on walls. So it’s not masquerading as his work. It’s your original work of art – a canvas print of your original photograph of something Banksy did on a wall in a public place.”

MICKY: When he puts it on a building, they can sell the building.

JOHN: So that’s private property. But, you could surely take a photograph of Wembley Stadium and then sell a canvas of your photograph. I think you should go back into the art business again.

MICKY: No, I don’t want to go into the art business or any other business. You do it.

JOHN: But you might sue me for stealing your idea. Banksy is famously secretive. What was your response to the lawyer’s letter?

MICKY: Eventually, via a barrister, a straightforward Who is this Banksy? We never heard another word from them.

JOHN: Nothing?

MICKY: They came and put a sticker on our window saying NONE OF THE CONTENTS IN THIS SHOP ARE GENUINE BANKSIES. THE ONLY THING BY BANKSY IN THIS SHOP IS THIS NOTICE.

JOHN: You should have taken a picture of the notice, printed it on canvas and sold it.

MICKY: I know. We should have kept the notice.

JOHN: Come to think of it, how do I know you are not Banksy?

MICKY SAID NOTHING AND JUST LOOKED AT ME.

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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.

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British government accused of weakening copyright to help Google – and fat, bald man breaches copyright

Copyright symbol

In the latest issue of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain‘s weekly e-bulletin, this interesting piece appears under the heading

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INDUSTRY NEWS

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A committee of MPs has issued a report strongly criticising changes in copyright law and warning, “There is an underlying agenda driven at least partly by technology companies (Google foremost among them) which, if pursued uncritically, could cause irreversible damage to the creative sector on which the UK’s future prosperity will significantly depend.”

The report, by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, quotes Viscount Younger of Leckie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Intellectual Property, as saying: “Google is one of several search engines … and I am very aware of their power, put it that way. I am also very aware, I think, that they have access, for whatever reason, to higher levels than me in No. 10, I understand.”

Changes to copyright law follow a review by Professor Ian Hargreaves, a former newspaper editor, and include new exceptions (i.e. free use of copyright material) for educational purposes, private copying, parodies and pastiches, and “user-generated content” in which consumers can download material and incorporate it in their own creations without permission or payment. There is also a plan to introduce “extended collective licensing” which could enable copyright collecting societies to give permission and accept payment for works by people who are not even their members.

The Writers’ Guild keeps a close eye on such developments through its affiliations to two expert bodies – the Creators’ Rights Alliance and the British Copyright Council. Both organisations have made detailed submissions to the Government that have been endorsed by the Guild.

Read more on the Melville House website, the Creators’ Rights Alliance website, and  the British Copyright Council website.

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I, of course, am all for maintaining strong copyright laws – otherwise everything I write could be nicked and passed-off by others as their own creation. The irony is that, in  re-printing that Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s piece, I have broken their copyright.

In my heart, the importance of copyright and irony are nicely balanced.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the sentence quoted above from a British government minister saying that Google “have access, for whatever reason, to higher levels than me in No. 10, I understand.”

The italics are mine.

What reason is being hinted at here?

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Filed under Copyright, Internet, Writing

Johnny Vegas and his woolly monkey worth more than an entire TV network

I once interviewed Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks on Doctor Who and he told me: “The most important thing is to own property.”

He meant intellectual property (IP).

He owned intellectual property rights on the Daleks (although he did not design them) and so was paid every time they appeared on TV, on print or in any commercial spin-offs. The BBC staff member who actually designed them got nothing.

Yesterday, I was at the British Library’s Business & IP Centre and was told that, when ITV Digital went broke in 2002 and sold off its assets, the most valuable assets they had were rights to the woolly monkey which had appeared with Johnny Vegas in a series of TV ads for their network of channels. The monkey and its ads had been far more popular than the network itself.

The remaining woolly monkey toys were auctioned off at £150 each, but rights to the woolly monkey character itself (it has a unique design which can be copyrighted) were bought for far more, which is why, since 2007, the knitted simian superstar has been happily plugging PG Tips tea with Johnny Vegas.

I had forgotten the full drama of their tear-jerking TV reunion, which can be seen on YouTube HERE.

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Filed under Ad industry, Comedy, Television

How thinking up a good TV format can make you a millionaire or screw you with a horrendous court case

Last weekend I posted a blog about Mr Methane phoning me from Manchester Airport on his way home from recording a TV show in Denmark. It turned out he wasn’t on his way home. He is still away on his professional travels – farting around the world, some might call it – but he has given me more details of the Danish show he appeared in.

He was brought on stage as Mr Methane and farted in the face of a man whom he had to make laugh within 60 seconds. Mr Methane tells me:

“The show comes out in Denmark in the autumn and is called My Man Can: the ladies bet on what their man will be able to achieve and he has fuck-all idea what’s going on because he is in a glass cylinder listening to Take That or some other shite music that’s being piped in. It’s a bit like a modern day Mr & Mrs with a slightly different twist so Derek Batey doesn’t see them in court.”

It does sound a bit like that to me too and I also thought Derek Batey created the TV gameshow Mr and Mrs but, in fact, it was created by the legendary Canadian TV quiz show uber-creater Roy Ward Dickson

TV formats are big business. I remember the ATV series Blockbusters hosted by Bob Holness (the request “Give me a pee, Bob” was oft-quoted by fans).

It was based on a US format and, in the UK, was networked on ITV from 1983 to 1993. In one period, I think in the late 1980s, it ran every day around teatime Monday to Friday. From memory (and I may be wrong on details) at that time the format creators were getting £5,000 per show and the show was transmitted for six months every year – I think they transmitted for three months, then had three months off air, then transmitted for another three months and so on.

That is serious money in the late 1980s. To save you the calculation, 26 x 6 x £5,000 = £780,000 per year for a format thought up several years before; and the format was also running on US TV and in several other countries around the world and, for all I know, could still be running in several countries around the world 25 years later.

That is why format ownership and copyright is so important. If you have an idea, it can maintain your millionaire status 25 years down the line. Ripping-off formats is an extraordinary phenomenon. You would think, given the amount of money involved, that there would be some workable law against it, but there isn’t. One factor, of course, is that you cannot copyright an idea; you can only copyright a format and there lies the rub that will probably stop you and me becoming millionaires.

My Man Can, for example, is most definitely not a rip-off of Mr and Mrs. The format of My Man Can is that “four women gamble with the abilities their partners possess – and put the men’s courage and skills to the test. She sits at a gambling table and bets her rivals that her man can accomplish certain tasks. He waits helplessly in a soundproof cubicle, waiting to hear the task his wife has accepted on his behalf. Each of the women is given 100 gambling chips which she uses to bet on her partner’s performance in each round of the game.”

The most definitive horror story I know about formats is the scandalous failure of Hughie Green to get the courts’ protection over the format to his Opportunity Knocks talent show.

Green first started Opportunity Knocks as a radio show in 1949. As a TV series, it ran from 1956 to 1978 and was later revived with Bob Monkhouse and Les Dawson presenting 1987-1990.

Hughie Green invented a thing called “the clap-o-meter” which measured the decibel volume of clapping by the studio audience after an act had performed. But the acts were voted-on by viewers and Green’s several catch-phrases included “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

The way I remember the copyright problem is that, one day in the 1980s, Hughie Green got a letter from the Inland Revenue asking why, on his tax return, he had not declared his royalties from the New Zealand version of Opportunity Knocks in 1975 and 1978. This was the first time he knew there was a New Zealand version.

It turned out the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation had transmitted a TV talent show series which not only ran along the same lines as Hughie Green’s show but which was actually titled Opportunity Knocks, had a clap-o-meter to measure audience clapping and used the catchphrases “Tonight, Opportunity Knocks for…” and “Don’t forget to vote-vote-vote. Cos your vote counts.”

Not surprisingly, in 1989, Green sued the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation for copyright infringement. He lost. He appealed. He lost. My memory is that it ultimately reached the House of Lords in London, sitting as the highest court of appeal in the Commonwealth. He lost. Because all the courts decided that a largely unscripted show which was different every week (which is what a talent show is) with “a loose format defined by catchphrases and accessories” (such as the clap-o-meter) was not copyrightable and “there were no formal scripts and no ‘format bible’ to express the unique elements that made up the show”.

In 2005, Simon Fuller sued Simon Cowell claiming that Cowell’s The X-Factor was a rip-off of Fuller’s own Pop Idol. The case was quickly adjourned and settled out of court within a month. Copyright disputes are not something you want to take to court.

Once upon two times, I interviewed separately the former friends Brian Clemens (main creative force behind The Avengers TV series) and Terry Nation (who created the Daleks for Doctor Who). BBC TV had transmitted a series called Survivors 1975-1977 which Terry Nation had created. Or so he said. Brian Clemens claimed he had told Terry Nation the detailed idea for Survivors several years before and Nation had ripped him off. It destroyed their friendship.

As I say, I interviewed both separately.

I can tell you that both of them absolutely, totally believed they were in the right.

Brian Clemens absolutely 100% believed he had told Terry Nation the format and had been intentionally ripped-off.

Terry Nation absolutely 100% believed that Survivors was his idea.

They fought a case in the High Court in London and, eventually, both abandoned the case because of the astronomically-mounting costs. Neither could afford to fight the case.

There’s a lesson in legal systems here.

Basically, even if you are fairly wealthy, you cannot afford to defend your own copyright. If you are fighting as individuals, the legal fees will crucify you. If  you are foolish enough to fight any large company, they have more money to stretch out legal cases longer with better lawyers than you. They will win. In the case of Hughie Green, even if you are rich and famous, you may be no different from a man who is wearing a blindfold and who, when he takes it off, finds someone is farting in his face.

When BBC TV remade Survivors in 2008, it was said to be “not a remake of the original BBC television series” but “loosely based on the novel of the same name that Nation wrote following the first season of the original series.”

Guess why.

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Filed under Comedy, Legal system, Radio, Television, Theatre