In a ruling that may make it even harder to get face time with TV and movie studio executives to pitch an idea (“it’s like Sunrise at Campobello meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer“), the Second Circuit has ruled that claims for theft of idea arising out of such encounters are not pre-empted by the Copyright Act.  The ruling means that actor Hayden Christensen may proceed with his claim that the USA Network TV series Royal Pains, about a concierge doctor in the Hamptons, is a misappropriation of an idea he once pitched to a network executive.

Judge John M. Walker, Jr. summarized the basic facts as alleged by the plaintiffs:

In 2005, Forest Park [Christensen’s production company] formulated a concept for a television show called “Housecall,” in which a doctor, after being expelled from the medical community for treating patients who could not pay, moved to Malibu, California, and became a “concierge” doctor to the rich and famous. Forest Park created a written series treatment for the idea, including character biographies, themes, and storylines. It mailed this written material to Alex Sepiol,who worked for USA Network.

After sending the written materials, Forest Park requested a meeting between its representatives and Sepiol. Sepiol scheduled the meeting “for the express purpose of hearing Plaintiffs pitch” their show. . . . Sepiol said that prior to hearing the idea for “Housecall,” he had never heard of “concierge” doctors, or doctors who make house calls for wealthy patients, and “thought it was a fascinating concept for a television show.” Over the course of the following week, Sepiol and Forest Park exchanged further communications; however, discussions soon ceased and no further contact between the parties ensued.

A little less than four years later, USA Network produced and aired a television show called “Royal Pains,” in which a doctor, after being expelled from the medical communicty for treating patients who could not pay, became a concierge doctor to the rich and famous in the Hamptons.

Generally, cases of this nature cannot be brought as copyright infringement matters— what is taken are ideas that are not protected by copyright, not the particular expression of those ideas.  But could the plaintiffs do an end run around this fundamental limitation of federal copyright law by stating a claim for “theft of ideas” under state law?  USA Network argued they could not, that the claim was pre-empted by federal law.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

The Second Circuit reversed, noting that the Copyright Act, by its express terms, pre-empts state law claims only where the right being asserted is “equivalent to any of the exclusive rights within the general scope of copyright.”  Applying California law, which has long recognized theft of idea claims, the Court ruled that a theft of idea claim is not pre-empted because it requires a plaintiff to prove an “extra element” beyond the mere copying of protected expression, i.e., an implied promise to pay for use of the idea.

The case will go back to the trial court for what undoubtedly will be, barring a settlement, lengthy and expensive proceedings, as Christensen tries to prove there was an implied promise to pay, and USA Network tries to prove that the series was created independently, without use of Christensen’s idea.  After all, Housecall was set in Malibu, Royal Pains in the Hamptons.  Whole different thing.

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