By Keith Schilling
In 1976 Thames TV broadcast a six-part drama series called “Rock Follies” about a three-girl rock group. The album soundtrack of the series went to number one in the album charts and the series won plaudits for its originality as well as three BAFTA awards, one of which was for “Best Drama Series”.
This was ironic since, as events were later to prove, the entire format had been plagiarised from a three-girl rock group known as “Rock Bottom’ and their composer/manager.
Two years before the broadcast of Rock Follies the claimants, Annabel Leventon, Gaye Brown, Diane Langton and Donald Fraser had verbally pitched their idea for a TV series to Thames TV. The idea was for a three-girl rock group made up of girls of very different character and social background with well-established careers in show business, showing how the group was formed and the experiences of the girls as a group interwoven with their contrasting lives.
After initially expressing interest, Thames TV decided to proceed with their own TV series and to cast different actresses for the roles in the all-girl rock group. Enter Julie Covington, Rula Lenska and Charlotte Cornwell. “Rock Bottom” had metamorphosised into “Rock Follies”. The group sued Thames TV, the scriptwriter and producer for breach of confidence. No claim had ever succeeded in breach of confidence in respect of the theft of an oral literary or dramatic idea.
Thames TV argued that there was no right of property in an idea and that ideas, particularly oral ones, were not protectable in law. They said there was “no copyright in an idea”. Copyright had, after all, developed to protect the expression of ideas in a protectable format (for example in writing) and not ideas, as such.
An idea, they said, was ephemeral and something so subject to contradictory recollection as an oral idea should not be protectable at all. Added to this there was a dispute as to whose ideas were in play, the scriptwriter in particular claiming that the scripts were derived from ideas he himself had originated.
During the eight-week trial that ensued in the summer of 1982, dozens of witnesses in the theatre and television industries gave evidence. Every one of them agreed that if he or she received an idea from another, it would be wrong to make use of it without the consent of the communicator. The judge found on the facts that the idea was that of Rock Bottom’s and that Thames TV had used it in making Rock Follies in breach of their obligation of confidence towards them. In doing so he made new law and gave effect to the moral obligation, or usage, that all the witnesses had testified to, that confidential ideas can only be used with consent.
Since that judgment and the surrounding publicity there has been no English reported case of breach of confidence in an oral idea for a television programme. That is not to say that plagiarism of ideas has ceased. Undoubtedly it has not. But with the judicial recognition that idea theft is unlawful as well as a breach of an accepted code in the theatre and TV industries it is to be hoped that the incidence of flagrant plagiarism of literary or dramatic ideas has been curtailed by the Rock Bottom case.
Keith Schilling is chairman and senior partner of Schillings. The story of the real Rock Follies and of the subsequent High Court trial in London is told in Annabel Leventon’s memoir The Real Rock Follies: The Great Girl Band Rip-Off of 1976