Brian Edwards Media

The Curious Case of Close Up’s Controversial Cloning

Have a look at this:

There’s very little, well, actually no doubt at all that this Close Up item on how many things in an average New Zealand home are actually Kiwi made, is an almost exact facsimile of an ABC America story on how many items in an average US home are actually made there. The idea is the same, the storyline is the same, the direction is the same, the graphics are the same, the commentary is the same. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Close Up version is a clone of the American story.

Plagiarism? Well, it depends.  

Plagiarism involves using someone else’s copyrighted idea, format, words, pictures etc. It’s a form of stealing.  But because someone has thought of an idea and turned it into a television programme doesn’t necessarily mean that no-one else can make a television programme on a similar or the same theme. A couple of programmes from my own experience illustrate this reasonably well.

In 1977, with my colleague Peter Morritt, I devised the consumer protection programme Fair Go. There were at the time several consumer-protection programmes around the world, essentially based on the idea of using the television medium to educate consumers on their rights and to expose dishonest companies and traders. But none had exactly the same format as Fair Go and it’s doubtful that any of them could have sued us for breach of copyright. There have also been several new consumer protection programmes since Fair Go began, both internationally and with Target here in New Zealand. The idea of a television programme on consumer issues is just too wide to copyright.

Some years ago Judy and I also developed a programme called Missing, which helped people to find missing friends and relatives. Once again, there were numerous programmes around the world which did exactly that, but none had the identical format to Missing. Julie Christie later produced a programme called Missing Pieces, which is currently on air. Same idea again, but a different format and approach. We won’t be consulting our lawyers.

But can you simply copy every detail of someone else’s programme? I would have thought not. Unless, you had their explicit agreement to do so. This is what Television New Zealand has suggested in its recent press release. It describes ABC America as ‘our affiliate network’ and says that it ‘reversioned’ the network’s original Made in the USA story: ‘We found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement’.

I would describe this press release as ‘carefully worded’. ‘Affiliate’ and ‘affiliated’ are less than precise terms. They may refer to a sub-branch of a company or organisation or merely to a company or organisation with which one has a connection. Neither meaning would seem to involve the right to clone the affiliate’s product.

And when TVNZ says that it ‘found a Kiwi family and conducted the same experiment here, as we are perfectly entitled to do under our affiliation agreement’, that may indeed be the case. But does ‘conducting the same experiment’ include making an almost exact copy of the original – same idea, same storyline, same direction, same graphics, same commentary? And all of that without attribution? I would have thought not.

Of course I’m not an expert on plagiarism or copyright, but I kind of think that you could only get away with that if you had the express agreement of your ‘affiliate’. And I don’t see a reference to that anywhere in TVNZ’s press release.

Hopefully the matter will be cleared up in the next few days.

(Thanks to Ana Samways, who unearthed this story, and to the Sunday Herald for its assistance. And just in case you’re wondering, I have the Herald’s permission to link to their ABC America/Close Up compilation.)

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  1. Unfortunately I was not surprised to see TVNZ copy this story that I had originally seen on ABC via Sky News NZ. To me it has continued a slide that started the day MIR crashed into the pacific at 5:45pm only for TV One news to go “Live” to Fiji 15 minutes later and report it passing over and then just prior to the first advert break report a confirmed landing in the pacific.

    However, I can not imagine a worse timing for TVNZ.

    At the moment media ethics are under scrutiny world wide. And I think journalist and media experts are kidding themselves if they think the News Ltd story will not expand to cover other media outlets and how they have obtained stories.

  2. If the point of the story was to point out how bad the McKays were for having stuff produced elsewhere, I just hope ABC’s other ‘affiliates’ don’t decide to do a similar story on food.

    In the global market world in which we live, isn’t ‘made where they can make it better or cheaper’ a pretty sensible idea?

    If American families buy New Zealand beef, Chinese and Indian families buy New Zealand milk products, British families buy New Zealand fruit and lamb, Canadian families buy New Zealand wine, and everyone buys New Zealand holidays … well, you can see where I’m going.

  3. all copyright issues aside what is more concerning was the release suggesting their was nothing wrong with a copy and paste news item. if their news team had handed the reporter the story, saying here just go do this and don’t worry too much because we have the script done, i would be a little incredulous. if applied to the print world- a newspaper word for word lifting a story off an “affiliate” newswire and proudly putting one of their own reporter’s names at the top – it doesn’t seem right. but then again that happens all the time so maybe i shouldn’t be surprised.

  4. The simple answer is presumably for TVNZ to publish the detail of the licence agreement they hold with its “affiliate” that allows this “re-versioning”.

    We await with interest!

  5. This made me smile, on the NZHerald website:

    “A story we screened on Thursday night was inspired by a similar concept produced by our affiliate ABC America,” Close Up host Mark Sainsbury said.

    I’d say that the problem was that they werent inspired at all!

  6. Reminds me of a radio advertisement here in NZ a few years ago which completely and utterly copied (right down to the Cockney accents) the long-running (and often very funny) ‘Self-Righteous Brothers’ skit from 90s BBC TV Comedy Series: ‘THE FAST SHOW’ (or was it ‘HARRY ENFIELD AND FRIENDS’ ? The two characters were played by Enfield and Paul Whitehouse).

    Astonishingly, this (seemingly blatant plagiarism) won a Radio Advertising Award.