South Africa: TV Formats

Last Updated: 3 June 2013
Article by Vicky Stilwell

Most Read Contributor in South Africa, September 2016

A recent posting on a popular intellectual property (IP) blog raised an issue that's becoming increasingly important in the couch-potato / global- village world we now live in: what, if any, legal protection does a TV format enjoy?   In South Africa we often watch local versions of foreign TV programs, be they 'reality' shows like Big Brother or Come Dine With Me, 'talent' shows like Idols or Masterchef, or game shows like The Weakest Link. But does a South African company that wants to produce a local version of a foreign TV show need any form of licence?

It's not that clear.  What does seem pretty clear, though, is that it's highly unlikely that a broadcaster will get a patent for a TV format in South Africa. That's because, although the Patents Act provides that you can patent a new invention that involves an inventive step and that can be applied in trade, industry or agriculture (entertainment is, of course, an industry), there are a number of specific exclusions. For example, you cannot get a patent for any literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, or any other aesthetic creation. And you cannot get a patent for any scheme, rule or method for playing a game or doing business. These exclusions would seem to put paid to the idea of patent protection for a TV format in this country.

So what about copyright, the field of law that most commonly protects works that fall within the spheres of creativity and entertainment? The South African Copyright Act protects various clearly defined categories of works, including literary works, artistic works, musical works, dramatic works, films and broadcasts. Anything that does not fall within these specific categories does not enjoy copyright. A recorded TV show falls within the definition of a film and it will obviously qualify as a broadcast, but a TV format does not fall within the definitions of either a film or a broadcast. It has, however, been suggested that a TV format is a 'dramatic work'.   A 'dramatic work' is a sub-category of the category 'literary work', which is defined to include 'dramatic works, stage directions, cinematograph film scenarios and broadcasting scripts'.

So does a TV format qualify as a dramatic work? The issue has never come up in South Africa, but it has come up in the country from where we get our copyright law, the UK. In the Hughie Green case an individual called Hugh Green created a quiz show called Opportunity Knocks. The show had a particular format that involved certain catchphrases, contestants being introduced by sponsors, and a 'clapometer' to measure audience reaction. When the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand copied both the name and format of the show, Green sued for copyright infringement, claiming copyright in a dramatic work. But his case failed, because the court felt that what he had created lacked the specificity or detail for it to be performed - the scripts only provided a general idea, and the repeated features (the format) were not dramatic works because a dramatic work must have sufficient unity for it to be capable of being performed.  The court went on to say that the repeated features were unrelated to one another except as accessories to be used in the presentation of some other dramatic performance. Although a later UK case gave a broad and liberal interpretation to the expression 'dramatic work, it seems unlikely that this judgement has much relevance to TV formats. So copyright protection is probably not available. Which is pretty much the consensus in the blog.

Broadcasters have, in fact, been calling for specific protection to be created for TV formats, perhaps by way of a separate category under copyright law. The blog seems to support this call, saying that in the same way that it was a mistake to stretch the definition of a 'literary work' to cover a computer program when the issue of computer software protection first raised its head (copyright has since been amended to add 'computer programs' as a separate category), it would also be a mistake to artificially extend the meaning of a 'dramatic work' to include TV formats.

So what's left? It is possible to get a trade mark registration for the name of a TV show (provided that it's distinctive and meets the other criteria specified in the Trade Marks Act), and also other branding such as the logo and perhaps even catchphrases - broadcasters like the BBC assiduously protect the trade marks of their big shows around the world. But a trade mark registration does not cover the format and it doesn't stop a third party from coming up with a similar show under a different name. There's also  unlawful competition - that area of the law that decrees that it's unlawful to compete in a way that's beyond the pale, that offends against the morals and ethics of the marketplace – but the courts are generally slow to find that something that doesn't infringe an IP right  constitutes unlawful competition.  As for passing off – itself a species of unlawful competition - it's unlikely that there'll be any confusion if a different name and branding is used.

So what's the creator of a TV show to do?  Well it should certainly adopt distinctive trade marks, it should register those trade marks, and it should try to use and promote them in such a way that a copycat feels obliged to use them. It might want to get around the issues raised in the Hughie Green case by making the use of the repeated elements so extensive and so integral to the show that they might be regarded as a 'dramatic work'.   It might also want to agitate for amendments to the law. In the meantime, it's worth noting that there is an organization that offers 'registration' of TV formats, see Although this is not official registration of any sort, this service may be useful if you ever sue for copyright infringement and you need to establish just what you created and when you created it. It must be borne in mind, though, that this won't make it any easier for you to persuade the court that a TV format per se does enjoy copyright protection.

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.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Mondaq Advice Centre (MACs)
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.