There’s very little, well, actually no doubt at all that this Close Up item on how many things in an average New Zealand home are actually Kiwi made, is an almost exact facsimile of an ABC America story on how many items in an average US home are actually made there. The idea is the same, the storyline is the same, the direction is the same, the graphics are the same, the commentary is the same. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Close Up version is a clone of the American story. Plagiarism? Well, it depends. Plagiarism involves using someone else’s copyrighted idea, format, words, pictures etc. It’s a form of stealing. But because someone has thought of an idea and turned it into a television programme doesn’t necessarily mean that no-one else can make a television programme on a similar or the same theme. A couple of programmes from my own experience illustrate this reasonably well.
In, with my colleague Peter Morritt, I devised the consumer protection programme Fair Go. There were at the time several consumer-protection programmes around the world, essentially based on the idea of using the television medium to educate consumers on their rights and to expose dishonest companies and traders. But none had exactly the same format as Fair Go and it’s doubtful that any of them could have sued us for breach of copyright. There have also been several new consumer protection programmes since Fair Go began, both internationally and with Target here in New Zealand. The idea of a television programme on consumer issues is just too wide to copyright. Some years ago Judy and I also developed a programme called Missing, which helped people to find missing friends and relatives.
Once again, there were numerous programmes around the world which did exactly that, but none had the identical format to Missing. Julie Christie later produced a programme called Missing Pieces, which is currently on air. Same idea again, but a different format and approach. We won’t be consulting our lawyers. But can you simply copy every detail of someone else’s programme? I would have thought not. Unless, you had their explicit agreement to do so. This is what Television New Zealand has suggested in its recent press release. It describes ABC America as ‘our affiliate network’ and says that it ‘reversioned’ the network’s original Made in the USA story: ‘We found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement’. I would describe this press release as ‘carefully worded’. ‘Affiliate’ and ‘affiliated’ are less than precise terms. They may refer to a sub-branch of a company or organisation or merely to a company or organisation with which one has a connection. Neither meaning would seem to involve the right to clone the affiliate’s product.
And when TVNZ says that it ‘found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement’, that may indeed be the case. But does ‘conducting the same experiment’ include making an almost exact copy of the original – same idea, same storyline, same direction, same graphics, same commentary? And all of that without attribution? I would have thought not. Of course I’m not an expert on plagiarism or copyright, but I kind of think that you could only get away with that if you had the express agreement of your ‘affiliate’. And I don’t see a reference to that anywhere in TVNZ’s press release. Hopefully the matter will be cleared up in the next few days. (Thanks to Ana Samways, who unearthed this story, and to the Sunday Herald for its assistance. And just in case you’re wondering, I have the Herald’s permission to link to their ABC America/Close Up compilation.)