A Copyright and Contract Case Gets Complicated

Finally, After Seven Years, A Ruling in the “Ghost Hunters” Dispute

Actors, models, artists, writers and others in the entertainment field are go-getters who use their ideas and talents to make a living and, in some cases, make it big. But, as a parapsychologist and publicist learned last month, it takes more than ability, drive and creativity to ensure your rights are protected when partnering with studios, production houses and other organizations.

In 1996, parapsychologist Larry Montz and publicist Daena Smoller conceived of an idea to create a TV show about investigators who explore allegedly haunted locations. That same year, they pitched their idea to NBCUniversal Studios (NBCU). When they left the studio, they claim to have believed that an understanding existed between them and the studio – if the studio produced a ghost hunter-type show at a later date, it would partner with them.

Ghost Hunters premiered in 2004, and approximately a year passed before Smoller and Montz became aware of the program. Another year passed before they filed a copyright lawsuit against NBCU. The case was complex from the start due to a number of factors:

  • Questions arose as to whether the case involved copyright law or contract/implied contract law. The case originally relied on the former before switching to the latter.
  • The case relied on the ownership of an idea, not an expression. (Remember the Case against The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown? The historians who first popularized ideas used in The Da Vinci Code sued and lost. The courts found that Brown was free to use their ideas in a fictional work.) General ideas are much more difficult to copyright than artistic expressions.
  • Questions regarding the statute of limitations (i.e. the time limit for filing a claim) arose: did the statute of limitations begin upon publication of the show or upon the plaintiffs’ discovery of the alleged copyright violation? Why did the plaintiffs wait so long before filing a claim? And did the defendant fraudulently conceal broadcasts of the show from the plaintiffs, and would such a move affect the statute of limitations?

For seven years, each side enjoyed minor legal successes before an appellate court ruled in favor of NBCUniversal in April of this year. The case contains numerous technical legal lessons, but the primary take-away is that protecting both ideas and copyrighted material is challenging.

An experienced entertainment and copyright attorney can protect your rights to material and content once a dispute arises, and help prevent legal disputes by implementing safeguards for your work or ideas. Tom J. Manos of Manos & Associates, PL in Miami, has more than 30 years of legal experience and can provide the legal representation you need. To schedule a consultation, please call 305-341-3100.