Have The Studios Write Down That Your Ideas May Be Taken.

Idea submission cases involve some contract law concepts that, perhaps, got one day of mention in law school.  Among the most-readable version of idea submission cases are those involving successful movies and TV shows.  Recently filed was a suit, alleging that Fox and Mattel stole their idea for the movie and toys “Robots” from an animation film developer, captioned Midland Prod. Corp. v. 20th Century Fox, 07CV2932 (C.D. Calif.).

It alleges that Midland “developed a feature length animated motion picture about robots titled ‘Robots of Mars.’”  Representatives met with Fox, and later, with Mattel, and got a lot of positive feedback (no bank will let you deposit this, and it is not legal tender).  They were in contact with Producers Chris Meledandri (Ice Age, Ice Age 2, Sister Act 2) and Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spider Man, As Good As It Gets), but no contract ever was signed.  They were so encouraged, they left their complete “Presentation Package” with Fox and with Mattel, even though, no non-disclosure or other form of agreement was in place.  Instead of money in hand, they accepted its motto, “In God We Trust.”

In the complaint, Midland alleged claims for breach of implied contract, breach of confidence and copyright infringement.  Here’s the nutshell on implied contracts – those are still contracts, and require clear and essential terms.  Implied contracts are formed by conduct, while express contracts are created by words.  Midland alleges many terms, on information and belief, as if there was a contract: that their “ideas” could not be used without “express consent,” that acceptance of these “ideas and materials” was conditioned upon plaintiff being “properly compensated,” including with “participation in the profits generated.”  The implied contract also allegedly was exclusive, that defendants would not “become involved in the merchandising of any project relating to an animated film about robots.”  All of this fits the pleading form, but it may not suffice to prove that the parties agreed on the essential term – price.  What does “properly compensated” mean, even in an express contract?

A further point of weakness in cases over movie ideas is that these usually involve some generic characterizations, here, robots.  The complaint goes into detail about how the robots developed by Midland were similar, e.g., in color and personality, to those in the “Robots” movie.  But, robot humanoids tend to look alike, and they share qualities with the good witch and the bad witch.  One recalls prior cases about pirates -> see, post-colonial Caribbean, planks, eye-patches, etc., and another about North Jersey mafioso, Baer v. Chase, 392 F. 3d 609 (3rd Cir. 2004) (Baer is a lawyer, who prosecuted organized crime figures).  At a point, these narrow-drawn characters meet up with the doctrine that “Aggregation of ideas and expression do not by themselves create novelty.”  Baer.

On the copyright claim, the submitter of the ideas thinks about “substantial similarity” while the defendant might ignore that and enumerate the “substantial” dissimilarities.  Midland did register copyrights on the screen play, and on “scenes collections” (presumably, storyboards and concept art).  Still, it is not certain that a copyright ever was obtained on the “Presentation Package” that Midland left in defendant’s possession.  Always a good idea to slap copyright notices on that slick presentation that one intends to show and share – in confidence.