Have you noticed that this Blog has been posting twice on Wednesdays? I’m not sure why there is a duplicate post a few hours after I post one, but I am working on fixing this. I suspect I have messed up one of the settings on WordPress.
Hopefully I have it figured out by next week.
This week I want to discuss a topic that comes into the news every once and a while and that topic is stolen ideas.
A few weeks back a case was in the news in which someone wanted to sue Universal Studios and all those involved in the production of the movie Ted. The plaintiff cites that they wrote a script called Acting School Academy in 2008 which features Charlie the teddy bear who, “…has a penchant for drinking, smoking, prostitutes, and is a generally vulgar yet humorous character.”
Acting School Academy was then made into a web series in 2009 and from there Charlie got his own spin off web series called Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear.
The lawsuit claims that Ted is an unauthorized copy of the character Charlie.
Of course this case will not go anywhere for a very simple reason. You cannot copyright an idea.
And “foul mouthed teddy bear that does drugs and is funny” is an idea.
If you could copyright ideas then movies would not exist. How many buddy cop movies are there? How many bumbling sidekicks are there? How many villains have secret lairs? How many movies have gangsters live by a code of respect? All of these are ideas and none of them are copyrighted.
This is the same reason why The Asylum can make American Warships (a rip off of Battleship), Battle of Los Angeles (ripoff of Battle: LA), Atlantic Rim (ripoff of Pacific Rim), Transmorphers (ripoff of Transformers) or any of it’s other ripoff movies. The Asylum only gets in trouble for this if there are reasons to believe that the public will mix up the Hollywood blockbuster with The Asylum’s mockbuster. This occurred in the case of American Warships which was originally entitled American Battleships and set to come out the same time as Battleship but Universal involved them in a copyright lawsuit and The Asylum decided to change the title (note that The Asylum wasn’t forced to change the title).
This also occurred with Age of the Hobbits which was set for release around the same time as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Warner Brothers felt that The Asylum was piggy-backing on the promotional material of The Hobbit, while The Asylum claimed it’s hobbits were not based on Tolkein’s work but of the subspecies of humans discovered in 2003 and nicknamed hobbits. A judge found that confusion could occur between the 2 films and temporarily blocked the release of Age of the Hobbits.
The lesson from these two examples is that you cannot trademark and idea, character traits or the basic arc of a story. The Asylum only got in trouble because it was clear they were trying to boost their own revenue by misleading the public in a hope they see their movie instead. The Asylum did not get in trouble for actually copying the story beats because a movie studio does not own the rights to the story, “battleships fight aliens” or “hobbits go on a fantasy journey”. Just like how Charlie Abusive Teddy Bear does not own the rights to, “Foul mouthed, drug addled teddy bear”.
This is also why, as a writer, you can take solace in the fact that you can write any story you want. You can write a prison break movie (The Great Escape) or a movie in which the sun is dying (Sunshine) or where humans fight transforming robots (Transformers or Transmorphers) or where a bunch of superheros team up (The Avengers). You will only get in trouble if your story IS the same story as another one or your character IS the same as a copyrighted one. That is why Transmorphers can feature transforming robots but could not have a story in which Optimus Prime and the Autobots fight other robots because these names and likeness are copyrighted.
So though Ted and Charlie have similar appearances (how different can a teddy bear look anyway?) and personalities the case will only be found in Charlie’s favor only if they public was mislead and that Ted was piggybacking off of the success of Charlie. And I doubt that was true.