Copyright Ideas Keep on Turning

The House of Saucier loves Saturday Night Live! We wait in anticipation about who is going to be the hosts, musical guests and the announcement of the new cast members each season. Even when the sketches are bad and miss the mark, they have an inherent goodness about them that allows society to laugh.

But that doesn’t mean this American icon is free from critique. This past week saw SNL as the cover story for alleged stealing of a sketch. While CBS This Morning did not say the phrase “copyright infringement,” the implication in the story CBS ran could lead to that potentially being a claim.

A comedy troupe out of Los Angeles claims they have been performing a similar type sketch for several weeks. The skits in question feature women dressed as Tina Turner and stopping in between verses to speak negatively about what is going on in their lives.  You can view SNL’s version of their sketch by going HERE.

Here is The Groundlings Version

The Groundlings claim SNL “stole the idea” from them. Unfortunately for The Groundlings, ideas are not subject to copyright protection. The Copyright Act of 1976 states in §102(b) “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea …” [emphasis added] Ideas alone are not copyrightable, and merely copying an idea of unprotected elements is not copyright infringement. What is protectable is the expression of those ideas.

It makes sense that the copyright statute would not extend protection to ideas alone. If copying ideas was prohibited, then it would make those ideals expressed in the First Amendment strained. Further, the free flow of ideas is a necessary part of a free society.

Ideas are not protectable, but expression of ideas can receive protection. So, where does the line stop and start? Let’s look at an example – the television shows American Idol and The Voice.

When it comes right down to it, American Idol and The Voice are the same television program. Both are singing competitions. Both shows feature a panel of three judges. Both have viewership participation by casting a vote for your favorite using technology. Both eliminate contestants each week. Finally, both take an unknown person with a dream of music stardom and thrust them into the homes of the American people. Same ideas, but different expression of those ideas.

As was pointed out in the CBS article, the sketches do have similar ideas. But, the jokes pre-written by the SNL cast were simply better jokes. Funnier. And, while funny is a subjective standard, the jokes were fundamentally different.

Finally, it bears noting that improvisational comedy might have another problem receiving copyright protection if steps are not done to “fix” the creativity in a tangible medium of expression. In order for something to receive copyright protection it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Here, the lack of fixation is overcome because the early group had recorded their routine, so they took steps to fulfill the necessary requirement of fixation. The take away is this, take steps to add creativity and be sure to fix your ideas in a tangible medium of expression. Ideas in and of themselves without elements of creativity added and fixation will not be subject to copyright protection.

You can read the entire CBS This Morning article by going HERE. What do you think did SNL steal the idea from the improve troupe? Take part in the Comments section below and Stay Tuned In!

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