Stop Stealing my TV Ideas!

So – you’ve got a brilliant idea and you want to make sure no-one steals it off you. That’s the hard part.

Now, first of all you need to understand that there is a chance that someone already has a similar idea in development. Anyone who has regularly pitched proposals for TV shows will have heard that immortal phrase “we already have something similar in development/production”. Maybe sometimes they haven’t and are trying to find a kinder way of getting rid of you, but maybe they do.

Who knows what sets off ideas in peoples’ minds but often it can be the same thing – an article in the press, the publication of a book, something that caught your idea on television or radio, watching a child play the latest playground craze, a funny YouTube clip.  Whatever set off the idea in your head could quite easily have set it off in someone else’s.

However if you think you have something truly unique and want to protect it then you need to do your research on the copyright and patents. The area of law that you will need to explore is that of Intellectual Property – so first the definition:

What is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property (IP) is a term referring to a number of distinct types of creations of the mind for which a set of exclusive rights are recognized—and the corresponding fields of law. Under intellectual property law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets such as musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions; and words, phrases, symbols, and designs.

So it is possible to claim rights over the wonderful achievements of your creative mind but you cannot copyright an idea as such – you can only copyright the expression of the idea – the format, the words, the musical notes in a particular order. This is often misunderstood in the world of television.

“They stole my idea,” you cry as you spot a series on how to train dogs, just like the series you proposed three years ago and which was roundly rejected. If your ‘idea’ was simply to get a dog expert and use them to demonstrate tips on how to train you pet then you have offered nothing original that can be formatted or protected.  Anyone who has ever taken their puppy to training classes could have come up with that idea. What are you offering that is totally unique?

If you have written a book, or a script you are in a far better place. Such written works are far more easily copyrighted. Again you don’t own the idea behind the book or script – ie man gets ship wrecked on a desert island and survives for years before being picked up by a passing ship – but you do own the words as you have written them.


Back to the text book stuff:

Copyright is the way in which artistic, literary, dramatic and musical works are protected.  Copyright prevents all unauthorised copying, adaption, publication, performance and broadcast. ‘Copying’ includes the production of a three dimensional object from a two dimensional artistic work and vice versa.

A person can have rights of ownership (Intellectual Property) in certain things, in particular:

(a) Original artistic/literary works.

(b) Inventions and non-artistic designs.

(c) Confidential information, know-how and trade secrets.

(d) Goodwill.

(e) Trade marks and trade names.


Remember that an idea as such is not capable of protection.  It is the expression of the idea in an invention, work of art or design which allows protection either automatically (as in copyright and design right) or upon registration (as in patents and registered designs).


There are some useful places to go on-line to learn more about this area of law and what, if anything, you can do to protect your idea. One is the Intellectual Property Office which is part of the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills.:


BECTU, the trade union representing people working in broadcasting, theatre and entertainment, have a script registration service that allows you to lodge your script or detailed proposal with them. You have to be a member to make use of the service. Details here:


Business Link is the government’s online resource for businesses. They provide support and information on a wide range of issues but you may be particularly interested in their section entitled Create, Innovate & Protect: – they have a section within that on ‘Protecting Your Intellectual Property’.


Sharing Your idea and Protecting it at the same time

If you are convinced your idea has major potential and determined to protect it but also want to be able to discuss with someone then you can consider a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Check out the Intellectual Property Office’s guide to Non-Disclosure Agreements:

The problem for those of you with ideas for TV is that most television companies will not sign a NDA, nor even accept unsolicited material because of the danger that they are already developing something similar and may find themselves accused by you of stealing yours! This makes getting TV proposals considered very difficult unless you are part of an established television company.

There are entire books on this subject. I do not attempt to cover it all but to give you some useful links to help your research along.  Good luck with those brilliant ideas!


  • Guy Lambert says:

    Thanks for this – a great and very useful summary. Ultimately you’ve highlighted the key thing: the expression of the idea is the thing that you can try and protect, not the idea at the heart of it. As a TV Producer it’s very hard when people send you ideas and ask for feedback as sometimes you genuinely are developing an idea like theirs even though yours might be a totally different concept.

    • Shu says:

      Thank you, Guy, it’s good to have a producer’s point of view. The whole area of ideas, where they came from, who developed them, who owns them is a minefield! Anytime you fancy writing a piece on that you’d be very welcome…!

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