The question I probably get asked most when I discuss pitching television and radio ideas is, “As a freelancer, how can you be sure they won’t be stolen by those you pitch them to?”
And I usually reply, “You can’t.”
“But,” I continue after a suitably melodramatic pause, “if you don’t pitch them you definitely won’t get them commissioned.”
And there, of course, lies the rub.
I was reminded of this do-I-don’t-I? dilemma over Christmas when I spotted an on-air promo for an RTÉ television documentary due to go out over the festive break that I’d unsuccessfully pitched to them almost three years ago.
I could’ve hit someone.
When I calmed down a few minutes later I realised it was actually only a variation on my idea.
It was based on the same pivotal event, but while this new one concentrated on it almost totally, mine would have also used it as a stepping off point to look at a whole host of other equally interesting connected events and elements.
And after a discreet query to someone involved I found out it had been commissioned by a different individual in RTÉ than the one I’d sent mine to, who, in fairness, in 2013 had been interested, but when BBC co-production funding failed to materialise knocked it on the head because of budgetary considerations.
Hugely frustrating but them’s sometimes the breaks.
And it wasn’t the first time where an idea I’d pitched turned up somewhere else.
It is, in fact, the nature of the business.
I was having a meeting with an exec producer in a very large independent production in London about 10 years ago when they mentioned they were making a certain documentary for Channel 4.
Not only that, but it was just one in a similarly-themed series of four documentaries they’d had commissioned.
“But hang on,” I said, “I pitched that idea to Channel 4 six months ago and got nowhere with it. What the f**k?”
Turns out I’d pitched it to one – the obvious – person there who’d rejected it while they’d pitched it to someone else less obvious who not only liked it, but asked if they could come up with some other related ones to slot around it.
I was gobsmacked. But what could I do except shrug my shoulders resignedly.
In fact, kind soul that I am, not only did I take this defeat gracefully, I even gave them contact details for someone they’d been ineffectively trying to rope in as a contributor for ages, my proposed presenter, Public Enemy’s Chuck D, no less.
Yeah, I know, I’m just too nice.
A few years ago I saw a programme that was but a very slight variation on one I’d made a couple of years before on that broadcaster’s sister channel.
It was enough of a variation to make it not my idea.
Though it did gall somewhat that it was made by the same production company I’d made mine with.
A phone call would’ve been nice. And maybe even the offer of a gig on it. But hey, what can ya do?
One of the early ideas I had during my time in London was based on a UN report I’d spotted sometime in the early 2000s on global maternal childbirth deaths.
I took the proposal to a production company I knew had a track record in this area and they pitched it to potential commissioning editors at the BBC and Channel 4.
Sadly nothing came of it.
Then some months later, up popped a BBC Panorama episode on…?
Yup, global maternal childbirth deaths.
My immediate reaction was to cry foul. But of course I wasn’t the only one to have seen that UN report and any Panorama researcher worth their salt would have too.
Case – probably – closed.
One final story.
About a year after arriving in London, I pitched an idea into various UK TV channels via a mate’s production company based on unique access I’d got to two fascinating characters.
Unfortunately no one bit.
So, as a last ditch effort I took the idea myself to a unit at the BBC who made their own programmes internally, aware that they were probably fully staffed and uncertain if there might be work in it for me.
But there was only one way I thought to find out.
As it happens, this BBC unit were indeed interested in my idea.
But, like me, they were themselves unsure what, if anything my role might be should anything come of it.
We figured we’d cross that bridge when or if we came to it. Whether there was an actual documentary in it for them would largely depend on how our two main characters performed on camera so I gave them my blessing to get the ball rolling and they promised to keep me in the loop.
Some months later I was in the BBC recording a voiceover for a BBC Education programme I was presenting. Afterwards the producer asked me what else I was at and in among the many possible gigs that I was hustling I told her about this afore-mentioned idea.
Much to my surprise she said that it was already in production.
She’d had coffee only that morning with one of the unit’s producers who’d mentioned it as one of the projects he was then working on.
She picked up the phone and rang him, telling him I was sitting beside her but had no idea it had already been green lit.
He was horrified and after a quick chat during which he assured me I hadn’t been deliberately ignored, promised he’d get back to me.
He did. And his explanation was actually quite innocent…and believable: the original producer who was looking after the story had been promoted and handed filming over to him; she had assumed he’d stay in touch with me, he’d assumed she would.
In the end, it seems, neither did.
A few days later I was ushered into the head of the unit’s office where he put his hands up and admitted they’d cocked up.
After half an hour I walked out with the promise of a substantial cheque.
It wasn’t a gig but it wasn’t half bad.
Ok, so it’s never happened to me, but I have heard plenty stories over the years of ideas being nicked so undoubtedly it happens.
How then can you avoid it happening to you?
Start with taking your ideas to someone you trust. If you don’t know anyone, ask folk who might and see who they recommend.
Keep a paper and/or electronic trail. If you’re going to claim an idea is yours, you’ll need proof.
And remember, there’s a very important difference between ideas and formats; my understanding is that neither are actually copyrightable, but at least with the latter there is some legal, albeit complex and often tenuous, protection.
So, for example, in 2003 Discovery commissioned an idea of mine on the history of war journalism, Reporters At War.
To be honest, I was surprised it hadn’t been done before as it’s an idea anyone else could have had. We were just lucky: we got there first.
But someone could at any time produce their own version. In fact, BBC international correspondent, Jeremy Bowen did a personal take on the topic for the BBC not very long after us.
Likewise, the first ever TV documentary I produced and directed was Sleep With Me, a look at what it’s like to share a bed every night in a relationship, for Channel 4’s First Cut strand in 2007.
I pitched RTÉ an Irish version as I was wrapping production that autumn but they passed.
A few years later, a documentary based on the same premise turned up on the BBC.
And RTÉ eventually got round to commissioning their version in 2012.
Some ideas really are just floating around in the air.
On the other hand, You Couldn’t Make It Up, which we made for Newstalk in 2012/13, is a specific comedy news panel format that has a series of regular, repeatable, easily identifiable moments that occur in each show.
If a direct copy appeared anywhere its producer would have a helluva job trying to argue it wasn’t a rip off.
On the other hand, copycat formats of successful shows that change just enough to make them ‘different’ are ten a penny so protecting your precious jewel rarely is straightforward.
Going back to my opening paragraph, it’s usually those just starting out in the business who ask me about the dangers of someone stealing their ideas.
In fairness, this is probably when it’s most likely to happen; when you’re naïve, unsure, unconnected, relatively powerless and, if it did happen, undoubtedly unable to do anything about it.
Then if you kick up a fuss, there’s always the worry you’ll get a reputation as being difficult.
Those who might steal your idea are only too aware of this.
But even longer-serving members of the media business know that they too have to be careful if they think someone’s pilfered their ideas locker.
They know they may well have to work with the company or organisation they think has ripped them off sometime in the future – they may even be working for them now – so they have to consider if they really want to bite the hand that feeds.
So what it the tables were turned?
I’ve occasionally wondered might I ever become the baddie if someone came to me with a really great idea that I felt confident I could get commissioned without having to involve them.
To date I’ve always come to the same conclusion.
Why would I steal their idea for mere short term gain when it’s likely that if they’ve one good idea now, they’ll probably have loads more in the future that we could potentially collaborate on?
And that’s the logic I hope to encounter every time I take an idea to a production company or a broadcaster.
So far – I think – so good.
That was very interesting Pat. What a quandary.
As you know I don’t work in your business but know plenty of people that do and I did work for a film company for a good while. Talking to one of the directors yesterday. He says the same, about the difficulty of pitching ideas and how they suddenly pop up a while later in a slightly different format. Just changed slightly but you really do have your suspicions.
Yes! A frustrating situation and you really can’t accuse anyone as you might, as you said, be working with them in the future. A bitchy business? Best of luck for 2016
Yup, it’s tricky ok. You just hope there are enough honest people out there.
“Honestly honesty your honour, it is no sooner on her and then it’s off her”. What’s really barbed in this case is to be in the “Idea’s industry” so to speak and accept for instance, a format with music on it. The person who got this CD/MP3 into your hands with his or her music on it now sits in waiting for Your CD release, after it’s arrival, the person who gave you their CD examines your now new release to find any correlation between what they gave you at the time (Though it seems innocent enough to you to have accepted their music in the first place) their original intention is to catch the possibility of copyright infringement you may have NOW participated in, You may not have even listened to their music but that doesn’t matter any more as you are now engaged in a lawsuit whether you like it or not.
Here’s the irony in this circumstance, even if you win there are other ways in which you will lose.That being your time, your stress levels and even your money as lawyers cost, as does administration, hotels, travel etc. Nasty stuff and, it goes on. When I write the word barbed, I mean once it goes in it is really hard to take back out. Once a law suit starts, it’s very difficult to grapple with. This has never happened to me but, I’ve heard some stories and it’s horrible. Now there’s a twist in the works for you eh !
Personally, I copyright as best I can with dated emails to myself, and the oldest trick in the book – a dated registered letter to yourself. Oh yes, lesson learned BTW, always attach a copy of what you send to yourself on it’s return because, as these letters keep coming back, believe me, you will lose track of what is on the inside and of course, if you have to open it to remember, the evidence is now null and void.
As a touring musician I never accept any format when touring with Celtic Woman, for instance, for the very reason explained above. I simply say “I’m sorry but this is company policy which I have to adhere to”. in this way “genuine” people do not get offended.
Wow, hadn’t thought of it like that, as in how it might happen in the music biz and how someone might deliberately try to set you up.
And yup, even if you’re in the right, the drain on your time, energy and money proving it can be soul destroying.
…not to mention the reputation cost – even the accusation of plagerism or off ripping someone off could have a long term impact well beyond the immediate time and cost implications.
Indeed Padraig, good point ! Many implications.
Yeah Pat, I got this one on good authority and what a disappointment to think there are sharks in the water.
There are so many ways to be hoodwinked in any industry and although we don’t think this way, unfortunately there are those who do.
As a lawyer I have done a bit of work down through the years on agreements involving TV formats. Its hard if the format is not already an established one though. The best way is to protect TV formats by way of a formal agreement. However, in reality, what production company will sign a format licence or a NDA not to use or copy an idea before they see the idea? And once they see it, what incentive is there to sign the agreement. The will be fearful of signing a NDA as the idea might turn out to be a really obvious one, or even one they have under way already. So I agree with you, lacing the correspondence with subtle but clear assertions of ownership or conditions around progressing the idea is probably the most commercially pragmatic way of dealing with these processes legally. Nobody likes to deal with us lawyers to early on anyway. 😉
Interesting article – thanks for sharing.
Thanks for that, Deirdre. Before writing I was under the impression that formats could be copyrighted but according to the Guardian article I’ve linked to, seemingly not. Tis a complex area ok.
Also if you apply for jobs in RTE and BBC they often ask for an example of an original programme proposal/idea . This happened to me some years back, I applied for a job, didn’t get an interview but my programme idea turned up a few months later. Coincidence or deliberate poaching..who knows? I also thought TV formats could be copyrighted… I did a course in Media Business School years ago and the solicitors of big media firm, Marriott Harrison said formats were hard but quiz show formats were one of the few copyrightable (that a word??) TV products. But their advice was to develop a kind of TV bible for the format, literally listing sample questions, programme outlines and game rules etc. Hope you formatted “You Couldn’t Make it Up”, Pat.
As I said to Deirdre in my last comment I always thought formats were copyrightable – feck it, of course it’s a word…well it is now – but according to this Guardian article I linked to – http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2012/apr/24/tv-format-rights-reality-cheque – seemingly not.
And yeah, I’ve heard many such stories of being asked for ideas during interviews only to have them turn up on air later. Has never happened me, but then I’ve done bugger all interviews…sure, who’d have me?
Good post Pat, thorny area. Here’s an anecdote thats similar (taken from this blog post https://www.duckrabbit.info/2013/08/networks-trust-and-rewards/ )
Don’t be afraid to have principles (and stick to them)! I was asked to ‘assist’ a major (London-based) tv production being made in the highlands and the (rather famous) producer promised me a lot of ‘opportunities’ in return. I did as I was asked, and more, but none of the promises materialized. Nothing at all.
Shortly afterwards some work I was doing which was highly relevant to her production caught the producer’s eye and she was all over me like a rash for access as she could see how it would benefit her production. We had a telephone conversation which did not go as she expected. I politely but firmly put her in her place about trust and making promises and how, in the world where I work, we have standards which people adhere to which benefit all concerned and that she would do well to heed that in future.
There was lots of arrogance and imposing bluster on her part, some of it quite condescending, but ultimately she started to sound tearful and finally started to cry, and then apologized profusely and very genuinely.
I then said, “Thank you, now how can I help you?”. She said “What! You mean after how I’ve behaved towards you you’ll still help me?” I explained that of course I would, that all I needed was an apology and some sense of her having realized that her behaviour had been totally unreasonable. Which I had obtained. End of.
And so I helped her out, she was delighted, her production was a success, and I received a token of her appreciation.
John, great post. Just gave it a shout out on @offmessage1. Bad karma doesn’t always bite folk on the ass but lovely when it does. 🙂
Cheers Pat – really appreciate that!
This post was the real horror story – the misuse of one particular image was a real wake-up call for Nat Geo photo Ami Vitale who was unaware of the extent, and particularly type of misuse:
and Ami’s follow up on Ochre is well worth reading too, good advice for everyone:
Thanks John, I’ll have a read of those ASAP.
Great piece, Pat. I’ve been in similar situations myself and with age and experience you do
end up just shrugging your shoulders. Also, you have to just look at it that we are working
off the same pool, from the same fertile ground. Just like comedians, there has always been
stealing of materials which is just wrong but the odd time two people will think of the same
observation and reiterate it.
I have a wardrobe full of scripts that I posted to myself in my youth to protect them. I got laughed
at quite a few times on telling this to people in the business. One response was, no one cares about
your idea and the others were, just like you said, there’s not much you can do about it.
Yeah, it can be really dispiriting. Even if it’s just coincidence. But what can ya do?