Yaina Williams had an idea for a reality TV show, called “Married At 1st Sight,” where 3 different, random couples go on a 12-hour blind date, after which the TV audience selects a winning couple who then marry one another. The goal is for the couple to remain together for at least 6 months in order to win prizes at the end of it all. Williams uploaded her “Treatment” to TV Writer’s Vault, a website that allows people to pitch their ideas for TV shows to producers. About two months after Williams uploaded her Treatment, she received a notification that an executive from Lifetime had downloaded it. Williams never heard a word from the executive himself.
In June 2014, FYI, whose sister company is Lifetime, aired a reality TV series called “Married at First Sight.” This show follows the experiences of 3 couples, chosen at random by a team of experts, as they live out their first 6 weeks of marriage after just meeting one another at the wedding ceremony. At the end of the 6 weeks, the couples choose either to remain married or get a divorce. FYI billed the show as a “social experiment” rather than a competition.
Williams filed suit against A&E, owner of FYI, for copyright infringement. The Southern District of New York ruled in favor of A&E. The Court said that “scènes à faire, sequences of events or features that necessarily result from the choice of a setting or situation, do not enjoy copyright protection and are excluded from consideration when deciding whether or not two works are substantially similar.” Scenes involving “stock concepts” such as a wedding ceremony, honeymoon, marriage counseling, etc. are not copyrightable as original concepts.
The New York District Court said that Williams’s claim rested primarily on the fact that her Treatment involved these “scènes à faire,” and did not express original enough ideas to be copyright protected. The court said that, even if Williams’s Treatment contained copyrightable elements, the court is not required to dissect the work and find these elements, but can just go off of the “overall feel” of the two shows and decide whether they are similar enough to constitute infringement.
Though scènes à faire themselves cannot be protected, the manner in which they are arranged can be. Among other things, because Williams’s show followed the couples in their “pre-wedding” stage, and FYI’s show started right at the wedding, FYI did not commit infringement.
On one hand, the court has a point that stock scenes and general ideas should not become the property of one person or entity. On the other hand, the specific situation in this case has the “overall feel” of a stolen idea. Granted, these things do happen randomly, and in all fairness I wrote a post about a trademark called “Workwire” that was an even wilder last-second story about two people with similar ideas (check it out). I’m sure the Lifetime executive who downloaded Williams’s Treatment has plenty of good ideas of his own, but something here just doesn’t seem right.
By Brian Unger