CBS followed through on its threat to sue ABC for allegedly misappropriating CBS’ trade secrets for ABC’s new reality show, Life in the Glass House, and it is seeking an injunction against ABC and 19 former producers and staffers who worked on CBS’ long-running reality show, Big Brother. In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles last Thursday, CBS argues that the ABC show also infringes its copyrights and that the producers are violating non-disclosure agreements they signed with CBS when they worked on the Big Brother series. (I have attached a PDF of the complaint, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter’s website, below).
For those not familiar with the Big Brother series, it involves a contest among guests who live in a house and who are filmed continuously, perform challenges and tasks, and then ultimately vote one another off of the show. According to CBS, Glass House “replicates every key aspect of Big Brother, including, among other things, its plot, theme, mood, setting, pace, characters, sequence of events, and other concrete elements.”
Of course, none of those elements represent a trade secret as they are available for the world to witness. Rather, CBS identifies a number of technical processes that better enable the show to quickly cycle and capture various story lines and assist in streaming around the clock to maintain its fast pace and unique format. In the context of the breathless allegations of copying and theft, these appear to be somewhat mundane trade secrets, although we have witnessed relatively weak trade secret cases succeed in the past (see the AvidAir Helicopter v. Rolls Royce decision by the Eighth Circuit last year).
In essence, this dispute really boils down to a misappropriation of idea case. While the elements and standards for this type of claim differ from state to state, these cases have traditionally proven to be tough ones to win. (See, for example, NBC’s successful defense of The Biggest Loser from a writer who claimed it stole her idea, “Phat Farm/Fat Farm — A Weight Loss Adventure,” as well as Tom Cruise and the producers of The Last Samurai’s recent jury verdict against two brothers who said they pitched them the idea for the movie first).
Glass House is set to debut on ABC on June 18 so there will likely be a request for a temporary restraining order, or perhaps even a preliminary injunction, over the next few weeks. As always, I will keep you posted on any developments.