UAE: What are some of the potential legal issues surrounding TV formats?

16 September 2014

TV shows are big business.  According to tview’s annual report (http://tview.ae), Arabs’ Got Talent, The Voice and Arab Idol were the top three TV shows watched by UAE households in 2013. What do these popular TV shows have in common? The answer; they are all extremely successful (and lucrative) TV formats.

What is a TV format?

A “TV format” is the overall concept for a television show.  It consists of the key elements that make the show distinctive.  So, for example, the “Got Talent” format’s significant features are (i) a televised talent contest, (ii) giving opportunity to talented amateur performers, (iii) a live, celebrity judging panel and (iv) the audience voting for the winner.

A production company will create a format and, if the show is successful, license that format to various broadcasters worldwide.  Each broadcaster will then create its own version of the show, appropriately tailored for its local audience.

The distinctive elements of the TV format are reproduced by the broadcaster, customising the show for the relevant territory. For example, “Arabs’ Got Talent” switched the original UK version’s judge, Simon Cowell (who is also the original creator of the format), for famous Egyptian actor, Ahmed Helmy.

Why license a TV format?

TV formats play a key role in the international television market, particularly with the ever-increasing popularity of unscripted reality TV shows.  The broadcasting industry considers TV formats to be licensable assets that can be monetised on an international scale.

TV formats are a fairly low risk investment for a broadcaster because the success of the show will already have been tested in the ‘home’ territory.  The region-bespoke show is also likely to be more of a hit with the local audience than broadcasting the original dubbed or subtitled version.

Can TV formats be protected by law?

The UAE, like other jurisdictions, does not provide specific legal protection for a TV format in its own right.  Therefore, the author of a TV format must try to claim that their ‘work’ is protectable under a number of different laws, most significantly, copyright.   

However, copyright only protects the expression of an idea and not the idea itself.  So, for example, I can imagine the plot of a novel but only once I have put pen to paper can I claim any copyright in my story.  The same logic can be applied to a TV format; it is simply an idea before the protectable work (the show) has been created.

On the other hand, the definition of a legally protectable work under UAE copyright law is reasonably broad and so there could perhaps be scope for arguing that a TV format falls within this definition.  Of course, the law around this can be quite complex and would need to be assessed on a case by case basis by discussing with your legal advisor.

What rights are licensed?

Now we arrive at the trickiest legal question; what rights are actually being licensed as a “TV format”?

The question is a difficult one as TV format rights may  effectively be a bundle of different rights that together make up the look and feel of the show.   For example, “Got Talent” is a trademark and so part of the license for this format would include a license to use that trademark in the localised show. 

However, there are elements that might be more difficult to argue have legal protection (such as the idea of (i) a televised talent contest, (ii) giving opportunity to talented amateur performers, (iii) a live, celebrity judging panel, and (iv) the audience voting for the winner) and therefore may be more problematic to license.

Consequently, it is essential that you obtain specific legal advice as to how TV format rights can be licensed.

TV format rights are big business

Despite the legal issues highlighted above, it is undeniable that TV formats are becoming an increasingly important part of the international TV industry. Therefore, with the right legal advice, the hurdles can be overcome and families across the world can enjoy the localised version of their favourite shows.

This article was featured on page 26 in the September edition of Digital Studio magazine, which focuses on TV and film production in the Middle East.