Ideas Are Not Protected By Copyright Law: But the Supreme Court Says You Can Sue Under Contract Law If Your Idea Was Ripped Off
Back in the 1990s a parapsychologist named Larry Montz and a publicist named Daena Smoller came up with the idea for a TV show featuring paranormal investigators who go into haunted locations. They pitched this idea around Hollywood - without success. Imagine how Montz and Smoller felt (surprise? outrage?) when a few years later the Sifi Channel (a division of NBC Universal - a place where Montz and Smoller had pitched) announced a new reality show called Ghost Hunters based on the paranormal-investigators-who-go-into-haunted-locations premise.
You can't copyright an idea. But Montz and Smoller felt they had an implied contract - if NBC used their idea they would be hired as producers. NBC argued there was no implied contract and that the federal copyright law should take precedence over any state contract claim. On Monday November 7th, 2011 the US Supreme Court rejected NBC's petition - ruling that the contract claim could proceed - and effectively affirming that state contract law can protect writers who pitch their ideas to studios - even if there is no protection under copyright law for the ideas writers disclose.