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United Kingdom

HIGH COURT DISMISSES FORMAT RIGHTS CLAIM: MILES v ITV NETWORK

The case law on formats and television programmes still only amounts to a handful of decisions (see our Format Rights early warning of January 2004). The recently reported case of Miles v ITV Network Limited gives a further indication as to how such issues will be dealt with. It concerned a dispute over the rights to an ITV programme, Dream Street.

The claimant, James Miles, appealed the decision of a Master who dismissed the claim on the ground that it had no hope of succeeding. That decision has been affirmed by Mr Justice Laddie. Miles alleged that in 1998 he supplied the ITV Network with promotional material for his cartoon, Trusty and Friends. The main character was a traffic light, and the ancillary characters were "traffic furniture" such as bollards and cones.

The later ITV programme (Dream Street) had a recovery truck as its main character and, as Miles conceded, the look and feel of the two programmes were very different. Miles argued that there was sufficient inference of copying for the matter to go to trial because of similarities between the characters in the two programmes, and the fact that they both featured traffic equipment. The creator of Dream Street, however, produced evidence that designs for his programme had been in existence since 1997, ie before Mr Miles had sent his material to the ITV Network.

The judge dismissed the appeal since, on the evidence, the only similarity between Trusty and Friends and Dream Street was the use of anthropomorphised traffic equipment, which meant the claim was "hopelessly weak".

The judge agreed that Miles had no arguable claim, and that there was "nowhere near enough substance in this case to justify allowing these parties to go to what may be an extremely expensive trial." In coming to this decision, the judge bore in mind the fact that the claimant had no resources with which to pay the defendant's costs should he lose the trial.

The High Court is therefore willing to take a robust view of claims over the rights in television programmes at an early stage where they have no realistic prospects of success. It also seems that where the defendants have no prospect of recovering their costs against what is a very dubious claim, this will weigh in the minds of judges in deciding whether summarily to dismiss weak claims.

Jonathan Coad