Let's say you pitch a story idea to a TV production company
- and not just an idea, but a complete set of storyboards,
characters and scripts. You would be surprised if one day you saw
that story idea come to life in a TV production that gave no
credit to you as the orginal creator of the materials.
That's what happened to Claude Robinson and his idea for a
children's TV program inspired by Robinson Crusoe.
One of the most important copyright decisions in 2013 was issued
by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in late December: In Cinar Corporation v.
Robinson, 2013 SCC 73, the court reviewed Mr.
Robinson's claim that Cinar Corp. infringed copyright in his
original story materials by copying a substantial part of those
materials in the new TV production called "Robinson
I am often asked when or why someone can copy the ideas of
someone else. Ideas themselves are not protected by copyright law.
Many features of a TV show or a movie are simply non-protectable,
including ideas, elements drawn from the public domain or generic
components of a story, like heroes, villains, conflict and
resolution. However, in this case, the idea was articulated and
expressed in a set of original written materials which resulted
from the skill and judgement of the author.
The court framed this fascinating issue in this way: "The
need to strike an appropriate balance between giving protection to
the skill and judgement exercised by authors in the expression of
their ideas, on the one hand, and leaving ideas and elements from
the public domain free for all to draw upon, on the other, forms
the background against which the arguments of the parties must be
In the end, the court rejected the notion that the two works
must be compared piecemeal to determine if protectable elements of
the original work were similar to the copy. Instead, the court
reviewed the "cumulative effect" of the features copied
from the original, to determine if those features amount to a
substantial part of the original work as a whole. Thus the court
approved a "qualitative and holistic assessment of the
similarities between the works", rather than dissecting
both works to compare individual features in isolation.
This decision will be applied in other copyright infringement
situations in Canada, including art, media, music and software.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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