Sample Essay on Copyright Liabilities in the Television Industry

Copyright Liabilities in the Television Industry

Introduction to Television and Copyright Law

Copyright Laws protect creators of pieces of work from various acts of sabotage that may be performed on their work. The law gives both creators and/ or those who may have purchased the copyright acts the exclusive rights of reproduction as well as distribution of the works without any legal implications. Copyright law was created for the achievement of balance between content creators and content users to ensure any use of content is within acceptable and mutually beneficial boundaries. This means that any work that is copyrighted, whether publications, pieces of art (music, drawings e.t.c), or television and motion picture productions that  are copyrighted have to provide fiscal benefits to the owners and/ or copyright owners. In its construction, the law ensures that creativity and imagination is enhanced in any form of art since it protects against intellectual property theft as well as misuse of other people’s intellectual property. The law gives the creators of work the exclusive rights to monopolize their creations through their entire life spans or for longer periods. This means that for any reproduction or distribution to occur, effective claims have to be made by the copyright owners as well as those who work for their benefits.

With evolution in media formats, the copyright law has also evolved over the years to be inclusive of other previously unprecedented cases. Media, such as television productions, motion pictures, and photos have been included in copyright laws to gain beneficial impacts of such works for the producers as well as the entire society. With the advancements in technology and in media formats, several changes have been made within the original copyright law to ensure that it encompasses all predictable situations. Some of the recent changes to copyright law include file sharing rights and acceptable practices, software ownership, music and video sampling prior to paid downloads, unauthorized recording of live events/ performances, and displaying websites (Mack, 2015). A close scrutiny of these changes reveals that most of the changes have come as a result of the Internet inventions. This shows that the advent of Internet technologies have placed a greater demand on the pre-existing laws to an extent that changes had to be made. Aside from the Internet, another area of copyright laws that have been impacted greatly is in the media production sector.

All media forms, from print media to audio visual productions, such as television media, and motion pictures require special protection from the copyright law. The conditions under which such forms are protected by the copyright law include when the media produced is in tangible forms, the work is original, and the copyright has been bought. Tangible forms of work are those that can contribute to and be identified through the common senses, such as sight, and touch. Television programs form an essential part of the audio visual formats of work protected by the copyright law. This implies that with effective protection, these programs are capable of being exclusively owned by the television producers. However, to avoid instances of content monopolization on television, several exceptions have been made within the copyright law to ensure that television content is put to fair use. Content classified under copyrighted materials in television production include music, video programs and news casts. The duty of television producers in the protection of their content, not only goes towards the direct users of the content but also to those who may knowingly or unknowingly use the content wrongfully. It is desirable for any program aired to be beneficial both to the society and the television stations that air them.

The family entertainment and Copyright Act makes it criminal for any individual or company to transmit video or audio signals from the point of production of a piece of work (Stim, 2015). While this law is set targeting motion picture production, television productions also form part of this since some of the programs fall under the category of audio visual materials. Moreover, it is also a criminal offence to broadcast any piece of work without authorization through the use of the Internet. On the other hand, contents filtered to extract items that are objectionable to viewing are not considered as wrongfully used. These regulations make it possible for television producers to air their copyrighted programs without fear of injunction.

While the copyright laws protect the television producers, it also works for the content owners whose works are produced by television stations. For instance, television stations broadcasting music videos or motion pictures for public viewing must have the rights to do so constitutionally. This means that every program or piece of audio visual work that is aired must have the rights of the owners satisfied. This can be achieved through purchase of such materials or through gain of special permission from the owners. The use of copyrighted materials by television stations has to be within the fair use category to be considered ethical and thus worthy of broadcasting. Besides the broadcasting bit of the television production work, other legal liabilities are encompassed within the copyright law with regards to television production (Mack, 2015). An investigation of the various liabilities brings out clarity of the entailed and implied conditions of the law.

Copyright and Television

The copy right law in television productions is applicable in various contexts. The main objective of copyright in television is to protect the television program producers from illegal use of their resources for commercial gain. Such use against which copyright protects extends but is not limited to videotaping of news broadcasts for commercial gain as well as selling of the videotaped materials to illegal consumers. The sale of videotaped content is illegal due to the possible consequences both to the television network of origin and the individual or private entity that carries out the videotaping and sale of contents. The television network is vulnerable to loss of profits due to content distribution, especially if such content can be obtained from other sources freely or at a cheaper price. An example of this would be in the distribution of content through Internet streaming. On the other hand, the person implicated in the distribution either gains financially or is liable for criminal prosecution for the infringement of copyrights. This means that for the copyright law to be effective in any situation, particularly in the television industry, it is imperative that certain conditions be met in complete.

To comprehend the nature of breach to the television broadcast copyright law, various conditions have to be considered. First, the purpose for which the ‘stolen’ material is to be used comes first in the determination of its authority. Materials adapted for use in various contexts, which bring about public good as well as non-commercial gains are acceptable under the copyright law and are thus not treated as infringement. Content, such as audio visual productions and broadcasts can be adapted from television productions for purposes, such as education, scholarship, research, commentary and news reporting. Each of these uses is considered a fair use and therefore anyone who adapts television productions for them is not liable for prosecution under the copyright law. In cases where the television content is to be used for educational purposes, presentation in a classroom set up is only considered legal if the instructor is present and the content is relevant to the teaching materials. On the other hand, if either of the two conditions remains unsatisfied, the content is considered infringed. Programs, which involve television viewing as part of the program, are also not considered as stolen content. In either way, the key point is to gain access to the content one intends to distribute through lawful procedures, such as gaining special permission to air the content.

Within the constraints of fair use applications, the adaptation and subsequent distribution of television transmissions also has to consider the nature of the material to be adapted. Third parties who adopt and edit transmissions for the extraction of materials of objectionable content are considered as fair use transmitters. Secondly, the materials to be adapted have to be reasonable both in size and in relevance to the context of use. For instance, adapting materials of no academic benefit for an educational purpose may be considered unlawful. While extracting materials from the television transmissions, copyright law dictates that the evaluation of content for a possibility of infringement should take into consideration the percentage of the streamed material in relation to the entire television broadcast. This is because through the distribution of large content percentages, it is possible to bring about the issue of cost implications to the original content owner. Consequently, courts evaluate the effect of the purported infringement on the market in case of the original owner’s complaint. It would be unreasonable for persons to be prosecuted for infringement when the content distributed is beneficial to the original owner.

Television stations are not only subject to protection by copyright laws, but also to those laws of varying degrees.

Legal Liabilities in Television Production

Copyright Termination

The television industry poses a challenge for the producers and owners due to various reasons. Although copyright laws are such that any party which buys a copyright owns that copyright exclusively, the television industry risks copyright termination in cases of misuse of the copyright or because of other related reasons. While being protected against infringement as well as other uses outside of fair use, some materials have no such restrictions. Claims filed against a television station for the violation of the copyright act and/ or the use of materials without regard to the owner’s authority can result in the termination of a television station’s copy right. The violation of copyright by a television station may include the use of copyrighted materials without the special permission from the owner. Materials such as video clips, music videos, and other recordings which are broadcasted by television stations also have copyrights exclusive to their original owners.

Photos may also fall under the copyrighted content category that require due credit to be given to the original owners. It is the responsibility of the television stations to scrutinize the content to be broadcasted for copyright indications and to ask for permission and/ or pay for usage of such content where necessary. In most cases, television stations have the license needed to transmit signals for various copyrighted materials. Also, content such as music videos and motion pictures are bought by television stations prior to broadcasting. Once the television stations have acquired the rights to broadcast either through purchase or licensing, the transmission of such signals then becomes the prerogative of the television station and any subsequent transmissions based on the stations original transmission may or may not be an act of infringement (Davis & Gilbert LLP, 2012). Besides the music videos and motion pictures, local programs which are recorded exclusively for transmission through a particular television channel also make impacts on the channel’s viewership. As such, it is critical for an agreement to exist between the content producers and the television stations of choice to ensure that the broadcaster acts within their rights to avoid implication.

While most of the content that is broadcasted has copyright implications, some of the original content transmitted by television stations are not under the protection of the copyright law (Depooter & Vanneste, 2006). In such cases, the television station which does the broadcasting should make a point of buying the copyrights to such content. This is to prevent instances of later accusation when the original owners are informed of the transmission of their content and subsequently copyright the content before the television station does. This may result in negative public relation especially when the victim/ original owner is one that can draw sympathy from others due to their conditions. This is like the case of CBS v. FCC where the sympathy accorded CBS resulted in their win in a case where the complainant had filed a suit relating to the defendant’s failure to give time for organization and subsequent broadcast of edited content.

Once a television station violates the copyright act, various consequences can be faced by the station. Any television station that loses its copyright has no competitive advantage over other stations because of two main reasons. First, any content transmitted by that station may not be considered authentic or sincere to the viewers. This has the potential for resulting in a loss of viewership for the station and subsequent loss of profits. Moreover, the negative image portrayed through the exposure of a station for copyright violation makes it difficult for the station to get potential programs for broadcasting (Stern & Yates, 2013). In addition to this, other television stations could also take advantage of the situation to take content from the television station that loses its copyright. This is because the station then has no protection against intellectual property theft and cannot lay any claim to the broadcasted content. For instance, in case a television station that has lost its copyright engages in the broadcast of certain live events, other television stations may not carry out their own reporting and would rather adapt the content already broadcasted by the original television station. It is the obligation of any television station vulnerable to copyright termination to prove before a court of law that the claims against it are unwarranted.

In a case of Zell v. E.W. Scripps Co., the complainant filed a suit against the defendant for the infringement of copyright. The complainant required to be compensated for infringement while the defendant held that the broadcasted content had no copyright prior to the broadcasting. During the ruling, the judge dismissed the case on the basis that the original owner of the content had no copyright to the protectable elements of the broadcasting. Moreover, the similarity between the broadcast and the elements of the plaintiff’s work was so minimal that the two were considered disparate. This brings to mind the idea that for any case to be considered for ruling, the plaintiff must be able to provide evidence of the material’s copyright as well as evidence of similarity between what the television station broadcasts and the protected elements. The defendant was therefore not liable to copyright termination. This is a classic example of the un-copyrighted materials aspect where the television station has the option of copyrighting the material before use. The decision in this case was constitutional and within the confines of the Copyright Act.

Copyright Infringement

While copyright termination forms the greatest threat to television production, the television stations are also liable to copyright infringement. Although termination demands the greatest input from the television stations, infringement forms a great part of copyright violations since it is the foundation of most copyright violations. Infringement on the part of the television stations comes about due to the use of copyrighted content without the original owner’s permission. On the other hand, infringement against the radio station arises through various procedures. The reproduction of copyrighted broadcasted content for distribution forms a major route for infringement by both individuals and corporate bodies. Also, the display of copyrighted materials publicly also causes probable financial losses to the original content owners and thus is an act of violation except in cases where such distribution is exempted from the copyright act.

For television programs, it is possible to infringe through various means such as online streaming, videotaping and subsequent sale of videotaped content, public display of the copyrighted content, as well as cable sharing of content. In each of these cases, a major exception lies where the distribution is regarded to be for fair use purposes and where such distribution of content occurs within the local area of service linked to the television station of origin. In each of these cases, the use is considered to be beneficial to the original content owner and thus within the confines of the copyright law. In contemporary times, online streaming of television content has become the main means of information sharing, especially when it comes to news broadcasts. With increasingly busy schedules, media personnel in the internet industry are gaining momentum as well as financial advancements through the distribution of media online for use by potential clients when time allows. This gives an opportunity to on-demand television viewers to gain access to programs even though their time may not merit watching the programs during television broadcast. Despite being profitable both to the media personnel and to the television viewers, this may pose a challenge especially since online streaming surmounts geographical boundaries. Streaming content online thus requires the express rights from the content owners as well as a license to do so. Otherwise, content distributors risk being considered as having infringed on the copyrights of the content owners. This was especially the case in Fox Broad. Co. v. Dish Network LLC, in which the defendant was accused of having distributed content directly to viewers without license.

In videotaping, the commercial use of the resulting videotapes is considered as infringement of content rights. This can be classified in the same category as playing recorded programs as part of a program or publicly showing content for commercial gain. Infringement exempts only business ventures that show television broadcasts without the intention of gaining financially but rather as a form of customer enticement. However, even in the case of business ventures, infringement still becomes an issue when the business outlet is bigger than a specified area i.e. 3750 sq feet or the screen is bigger than the optimum size acceptable within the law for non commercial gain (Winter, 2013). In this case, the business venture has to seek licensing for broadcast of television programs to avoid being liable for infringement. In a case of Bruzzone v. Miller Brewing Co., the plaintiff reported a case of copyright infringement through videotaping of content and subsequent distribution for commercial gain. Considering the nature of the content distributed and the effect on the market, the court decided that the use was within the fair use boundaries. The case was thus dismissed. This shows that besides the obvious financial gain to the secondary content distributor, claims of infringement also have to consider the commercial impacts of the videotaping on the market of the television content.

Section 111 of the copyright Act clearly describes the nature of copyright infringement with regards to the television network. Another way of potentially infringing on the copyrights of a television station is through transmission by satellite. This is described as being pursuant to section 119 of the act. Through secondary transmission via satellite carrier, it is possible for television broadcasts to cover areas greater than the local station service area. This needs permission to be granted both by the local television whose programs are being transmitted by satellite as well as the broadcast stations within the area covered by the secondary transmission (Winter, 2013). This is also considerable in case of cable transmission where the secondary transmitter goes beyond the local service area. Failure to contact the services stations on these grounds implies that the secondary transmitters have infringed on the copyright of the television stations whose programs they are transmitting. On the other hand, transmissions within the local service area are considered beneficial to the television station and thus mutually building. In cases of infringement, the owner of the rights that have been violated is mandated to institute action against the individual or corporate which practices the rights infringement. In such a situation, either the transmitter whose programs have been altered for cable and/ or satellite transmission or any other broadcast station within the services area to which the programs have been broadcasted has the freedom to institute action against the purported culprit. The end result is that infringement has to be within the fair use systems for it to be forgivable as well as acceptable by the supposed victims.

Television stations are strict on infringement due to the fact that it can result into a tainted image of the television station. This is because infringement makes it imperative to remove some scenes from the original content, a process which may result in content disturbance as well as a reduction in the attractiveness of the program that has been infringed. It is thus important for the television stations to consider the implications of infringement prior to case filing. The disturbance of content can also result in poor image representation of television station. This implies that the station should take action as soon as any case of infringement has been noted to have taken place. For any content to be considered as infringed, it must be confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant had access to the work of the plaintiff and that there is significant similarity between the two works in case.

A sample case of infringement is the case of Burris/ Fraser enterprises v. Goodson- Rodman Enterprises. In this case, the plaintiff, a producer asserted that a fellow producer infringed on his copyright to a game show. Since the copyrighted material was in no way similar to the content said to have been infringed, the suit was dismissed due to lack of evidence. Consequently, a request for summary judgment by the court was denied since a consideration of the elements protectable by the copyright act showed lack of similarity. This case shows just how evidence specific a case of infringement can be. It may be related to the case of idea theft among producers across television stations.

Idea Theft

Besides termination and copyright infringement, television stations are also liable for idea theft during their broadcasts. Idea theft in the television industry comes about due to a breach of trust by those who are close to the program producers. It is possible for program ideas to be stolen and manipulated by other producers resulting in the risk of being jailed for failing to deliver on the expectations of the viewers. Several cases have been filed in court on account of idea theft. However, the thought that ideas may not have been copyrighted makes it a crime in the rise as it is much more common than infringement. The authenticity of an entire program can be brought down simply because of idea theft which results in similarities across shows in different television stations (Waska, 2008). Moreover, the credibility of a show can be jeopardized if the viewers realize that there is a possibility of similarity even in the minutest contexts of the show. This means that for any producer intending to be above par at their shows, the protection of ideas is mandatory. This is however impractical for reality show ideas because real lives are hard to copy exactly (Jefferson, 2014). Secondly, idea theft is rife in the television industry because it is asserted that one does not own an idea simply by pitching it across to decision makers. This is claimed to be because decision makers receive thousands of ideas yearly and it is upon them to credit them as worthy or unworthy of their cause. In a case of CBS v. ABC, the plaintiff filed a suit against the defendant claiming that the idea of having 14 contestants for “Life in a Glasshouse” had been stolen from the 14 contestants in “Big Brother”. The defendant argued that the point of theft was not strong enough to be considered a stolen idea. The court ruled in favor of ABC with the conclusion that “Life in a Glass House” was not an exact copy of “Big Brother (CBS “Big Brother” v. ABC “Life in a Glass House”).

Another case of idea theft was Bethe V. Burnett. In this case, the plaintiff based his arguments on the claim that the defendant used a plot that was similar to his. However, the court ruled that since the plot was a congruence of ideas, it was not protected by any copyright law and that there was no consistent similarity between the two works hence the basis for claim was unfounded. This resulted in the dismissal of the case.

Defamation and Talent Contracts

Other cases that have been faced by television stations in recent time are on defamation and on talent contracts. Defamation claims have been filed by various media personalities over time. Trade dress laws have been part of the general defamation claims against television stations (Laing, 2004). When people are portrayed in negative light by television stations during news broadcasts, they are bound to seek redress from the courts. Through defamation suits, it is possible for TELEVISION stations to reduce their public appearance through increased anxiety and fear in the public. The television stations begin to be portrayed as destroyers of the public image as well as individual images. An example of a case of defamation in recent times is that of KTRK television Inc. v. Robinson. In this case, the complainant filed a suit against the defendant on the basis that the latter had wrongfully filed for defamation and that the case should be dropped. The court ruled in favor of the complainant arguing that the defendant did not provide sufficient evidence to prove the defamation claims.

While not significantly similar to defamation, talent contracts have also formed an area of liability in the television industry when it comes to copyright violation. When dealing with show characters, it is important that their rights be respected and their needs addressed. In a case of Rodriguez v. Heidi Klum Co., the plaintiff sued the company based on the argument that the costumes used on set had been imitations of those used in other sets. The result was that the judge ruled in favor of the complainant with the assertion that the costumes had been imitated from “America Runway.”


The television industry is rife with copyright related issues. While third parties are liable to various aspects of the copyright law and answerable to cases such as infringement and other copyright violation forms, TELEVISION stations also play an important role in copyright liability. As much as television stations have to protect themselves against copyright termination, the stations also have to be liable for copyright infringement, defamation, idea theft and talent contracts. In each of these cases, the television stations are vulnerable to image loss, as well as loss of viewership. It is therefore imperative that the stations take care of both their needs for protection by copyright as well as the copyright needs of others with whom they relat


Bethe v. Burnett, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46944 (C.D. Cal. June 28, 2005)

Bruzzone v. Miller Brewing Co., 202, U.S.P.Q. (DNA) 809 (ND Cal. 1979)

Burris/Fraser Enterprises v. Goodson-Rodman Enterprises, Ltd., 1988 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 4, 1988)

CBS Broadcasting Inc v. American Broadcasting Companies Inc. et al 662 F 2D (2012)

CBS Inc. v. FCC, 453 U.S 367 (1981).

Davis & Gilbert LLP. (2012, March). Copyright Termination Rights Create Quandaries for Music Licensees. Advertising, Marketing & Promotions Alert.

Depoorter, B., & Vanneste, S. (2006). Norms and enforcement: The case against copyright litigation. Oregon Law Review, 84(4), 1127.

Fox Broad. Co. v. Dish Network LLC, No CV 12-4529 DMG, *24 (C.D. Cal. 2015)

Jefferson, R.B. (2014, October). The Reasons why you Can’t Protect your Reality Show Ideas. Retrieved from

KTRK television Inc. v. Robinson, case number 01-12-00372-CV, in the First District Court of Appeals for the State of Texas.(July 11,2013)

Lanza, E. (2015, January). Aereo and FilmX: Internet television Streaming and Copyright Law. Congressional Research Service.

Laing, D. (2004). Copyright, politics and the international music industry. Music and Copyright, 2, 70-85.

Mack, S. (2015). Copyright Law and television. Demand Media. Retrieved from television-16286.html

Rodriguez v. Heidi Klum Co., LLC, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 80805 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 2008)

Stern, D. & Yates, B. (2013). Get Rights Back and Perhaps Get Back to Work. Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchel LLP.

Stim, R. (2015).Copyright Law Changes that May affect you. Retrieved from

Wasko, J. (2008). Hollywood Film Industry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Winter, E. (2013). Entertainment Law – Glamour by Association – Law Crossing. Retrieved On 13th March 2016.

WXIA – TELEVISION v. Duncan.MEDIA L.REP. (BNA) at 2076. (NDGa, June 28,1982)

Zell v. E.W. Scripps Co., 529 F. Supp. 2d 1124 (C.D. Cal. 2007)