Great Story, But Who Owns It?

With all the copycatting in Hollywood, it's harder than ever to determine who owns a concept

By now, we're all up to speed on the goings-on in Florida, from unreadable ballots to lawsuits. But we've got our own legal controversy brewing here in Hollywood. The day before Americans went to the polls, a federal judge in Los Angeles issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against CBS. The Tiffany Network's transgression? Creating a show called Race Around the World, where two sets of families try to beat each other back home while hitting photogenic spots along the way.

Why anyone would create a show like that is beyond me. But in Hollywood, two companies are actually vying to produce this global trek as the next reality show. It's unlikely to live up to the ratings of Survivor, which started the reality craze. But the Fox Family Channel has emerged with the dubious distinction of winning the legal fight's first round, stopping CBS from creating a show with the same name and a similar premise. Judge Robert M. Takasugi, who issued the TRO, was scheduled to hold hearings on Nov. 20.

This is exactly why Hollywood is Hollywood. Where else would folks drag a federal judge and two high-priced law firms into a messy legal fray over the bragging rights to a show no one is ever likely to see? But in this town, where ideas are precious and egos loom large, it happens all the time.

There are whisper campaigns about stolen ideas and rival projects that are just different enough so that both get produced--and most likely lose a ton of money. The bickering even extends to companies wanting to promote films. As Fox and CBS were facing off, credit-card giant Visa International was suing in a San Francisco court to stop American Express Co. from promoting Universal Studios' flick Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Visa is the movie's official sponsor.

What's causing these tussles in court? No doubt, as more and more TV channels and studios turn out more movies than anyone can watch, those that stand out are all the more valuable. And as the demand for TV shows and movies builds, the imaginations of Hollywood's creative types seem close to being exhausted. Why else would the hottest movie of the holiday season be a remake of a 1970s TV show?

Hollywood's history of battling over ideas goes back years. In 1988, columnist Art Buchwald sued--and eventually won--in a court case against Paramount Pictures Corp. over the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. Buchwald had pitched a similar idea to the studio earlier, a judge found. In 1997, Steven Spielberg was sued by Barbara Chase-Riboud, who claimed that the famed director had stolen the idea for his movie Amistad from her book about a slave-ship rebellion. That suit was settled out of court.

The point is that in Hollywood, everyone has an idea for a movie or TV show. When Tinseltown moguls kibitz over breakfast, lunch, or dinner, ideas often spill out along with the Evian. The result, all too often, is that the ideas are a jumble. That's how you can get a TV show like Chicago Hope on CBS, which came out in the same time slot as NBC's ER--and was trounced by it. This year, Warner Bros. Studios released its Mars movie Red Planet on Nov. 10, following Walt Disney Co.'s earlier release of Mission to Mars--a cheesy sci-fi tale that generated a none-too-cosmic $61 million at the box office.

Every once in a while, studios pool their interests and walk away with a small bundle. In February, MGM and Universal will jointly release Hannibal, the sequel to the 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs. Two years earlier, Universal had linked up with author Thomas Harris, who wrote the book from which the original was made. But it turned out that MGM owned the rights to most of the characters' names and threatened a messy legal fight. Now, MGM gets the U.S. distribution rights, and Universal gets the foreign ones.

Which brings us back to Race Around the World. Two companies claim they got exactly the same idea independently. In its filing, Fox says it initially presented the concept for the show to a sponsor and a talent agent, who tried to get another of her clients the job of producing the show. When that didn't happen, her client joined with Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer to create a show, originally called Around the World in 80 Days, that was placed with CBS.

What does the winner in such a case hope to gain? Am I the only one who remembers the failed game shows that followed Regis? When Race Around the World gets on the air some time next spring, America will likely have had its fill of reality-based programs. And the minds that thought this one up will be doing lunch with someone else peddling another hot idea.

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